Principles to guide a new US strategy in East Asia

These principles outline the essence of the QI East Asia program’s views toward the region, centering on the major drawbacks of current U.S. policies and the core elements of a new strategic approach.  These principles serve as the foundation for a detailed strategy paper to follow, and for the ongoing work of the program in coming months.

The world is undergoing epochal change, and much of this change is driven by transformations in East Asia, especially the rise of China as a major military, economic, and technological power. America’s strategy in East Asia must change to meet this moment. In recent years, the United States has doubled down on regional military dominance and stoked the fires of hostile ideological competition, even while neglecting robust diplomatic and economic engagement. Such efforts are dangerous and counterproductive. 

The United States instead must foster an inclusive, stable multipolar order in East Asia. America must work with, more than against, China, together with other states in the region, to tackle shared challenges such as climate change and pandemics, promote broad prosperity, and peacefully resolve disputes. At the same time, to respond to China’s growing power and influence, the United States should work closely with like-minded states on some issues to promote shared values and standards, deter coercion and the direct use of force, and ensure economic and political resilience.

Dangers of America’s current approach

The current U.S. strategy in East Asia endangers U.S. national security interests by inflaming military tension with China that could provoke crises and escalate into war. It wastes resources by diverting them from essential non-military uses at home and abroad. Treating China as an enemy also makes Beijing less willing to compromise in disputes and endangers bilateral cooperation on the most urgent of shared challenges, including climate change, pandemic disease, and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. 

The current approach weakens America’s standing in the world by placing Asian nations in the position of having to pick sides between the United States and China, repelling many of them in the process. Even America’s closest Asian allies resist and resent such a zero-sum choice. Although several aspects of China’s behavior, especially in the realms of human rights, economic and political governance, cyber-espionage, and some uses of military and paramilitary force, do pose a challenge to U.S. and allied interests, America’s current approach either neglects or downplays the tools that would be most effective in countering such behavior: positive-sum diplomatic and military engagement and economic investment.

A cold-war-like strategy toward China weakens U.S. political and economic influence. Treating China as an enemy undermines effective efforts to counter the Chinese government’s egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere. It bolsters Chinese nationalism and deepens the insecurity that China’s leadership has used to justify its repression. Similarly, U.S. efforts to “decouple” the American and Chinese economies and choke off exchanges between students and scientists in both countries impoverish each side and the world and damage Chinese people’s views of the United States. 

The American people reject Sino-American competition as the organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy. Although most Americans decry Beijing’s human rights abuses and want the U.S. to level the economic playing field with China, they do not want a new cold war. They prefer instead that the U.S. government work with China on vital common challenges such as climate change and pandemics, while investing in domestic renewal and reform rather than costly arms races.

A better way

The United States should:

Invest in Realistic Dialogue with China. Pursue robust, results-oriented diplomacy with China, prioritizing crisis management. Diplomacy must address the most contentious issues in the relationship, including trade, intellectual property, political interference, cybersecurity, military activities at sea, North Korea, and Taiwan. Regarding the latter issue, Washington must reaffirm the U.S. One China policy while insisting on Beijing’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the issue and pursuing new military confidence-building measures with Beijing, in careful coordination with Taipei and Tokyo. 

Bolster Inclusive Regional Diplomacy. Promote both direct diplomacy between China and other Asian countries and inclusive multilateralism as means to coordinate action on shared interests and resolve disputes. Welcome and encourage rapprochement between China and its neighbors as well as between North Korea and South Korea.

Engage in Direct Diplomacy with North Korea. Maintain direct dialogue with North Korea across both nuclear and non-nuclear issues, and pursue a phased deal to build peace and reduce nuclear armaments, leading to the eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, in consultation with Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing.

Shift to a Defensive Military Strategy. Empower states in the region to do more for their own defense, while restructuring the U.S. force posture according to a more affordable and stable “mutual denial” approach, which would establish a more defensive, less escalatory deterrent against potential threats from China than current offensive operational concepts. Recognize that neither Beijing nor Washington will or should dominate Asia militarily. 

Reinvest in Diplomacy and Non-Military Aid. Increase non-military assistance to countries in the Indo-Pacific region, expand U.S. diplomatic engagements, and restore the State Department’s role as the leading foreign policy agency in the region, rather than the U.S. military.

Couple Trade Agreements with Domestic Investments. Pursue inclusive regional agreements that balance trade and investment with policies that build U.S. industry and protect national security, workers’ rights, and the environment. Instead of waging trade wars that harm the American economy, invest the gains from trade in U.S. infrastructure, education, and healthcare.

Craft Smart Technological Integration with China. Rather than decouple from China’s economy, encourage mutually beneficial U.S.-China cooperation in many technology areas, especially green technology, while building a high wall around technologies with truly sensitive national security applications. Moreover, adopt strong data privacy standards that apply across the board to all digital-sector companies operating in the United States.

Adopt a Consistent Stance, Pursued Multilaterally, on Human Rights. Work with other countries to counter repressive policies in China and elsewhere in East Asia. At the same time, recognize the United States best advances human rights around the world by serving as a model of freedom and justice at home and by being consistent in its human rights advocacy everywhere.