Since the last two decades, the Indo-Pacific region has emerged as one of the most important geopolitical arenas in the world, with countries such as China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and the United States vying for influence and power. At the heart of this competition is the rise of China, which is close to becoming an economic and military superpower in the forthcoming epoch. However, China’s growing power has also raised concerns among other regional and extra-regional stakeholders including the US, leading to the question of how to contain China’s influence.
The US originally employed “Containment” as a strategy to restrain the Soviet Union’s expansionist aspirations during the Cold War. Today, the same strategy is being used by the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s growing influence. As a matter of fact, the intrigued geographical constructions have done as well as the shift from the term “Asia-Pacific” to the “Indo-Pacific” represents a broader strategic shift in US foreign policy towards Asia, with a greater focus on India as a key player in the region. The basic idea of containment is to limit the expansion of a rival or competing power by surrounding it with a network of alliances, military bases, and economic partnerships. The goal is to prevent the rival power from achieving regional dominance while also maintaining the balance of power in the region.
The containment strategy is being implemented in various ways in the Indo-Pacific region. One approach is to strengthen existing alliances and create new ones. The US has formal alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines, which are aimed at countering China’s military power. Additionally, the US has been working to strengthen its partnerships with India, Vietnam, and Indonesia, all of which are wary of China’s growing influence in the region. The major alliances that have been made in the last two decades are the QUAD (not a formal alliance, but increased security and economic ties against Chinese rise) and the AUKUS (a trilateral security alliance, established in 2021). The US has also been working with regional organizations such as the ASEAN to promote a rules-based order and prevent China from using its economic leverage to coerce smaller countries.
Another approach to containing China is through military means. The US has been increasing its military presence in the region, with the deployment of more ships, planes, and troops. It has established various military bases in the Indian as well as in the Pacific Ocean; most significant and operational of them include Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and the Hawaii Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Diego Garcia, was depopulated forcefully during the 1970s under an illegal occupier, the British Indian Rule, to make it a naval base for the US. It became the spot of the vital US military post with more than 200 active personnel, two bomber runways, thirty warships, facilities for nuclear-armed submarines (SSBN), and a satellite surveillance station. It is also a matter of fact that bombing campings in Iraq and Afghanistan were conducted from this island. Additionally, the US has been conducting joint military exercises with its allies in the region, aimed at enhancing their military capabilities and interoperability. The US has also been working to strengthen its missile defense systems in the region, aimed at countering China’s growing missile capabilities.
Moreover, the 28th edition of the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise, the RIMPAC, was held in June-August 2022, hosted by the US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command, in which 26 nations participated. Since it was organized by Indo-Pacific Command, the Indian Ocean was unofficially part of it, and that is how the whole range of this exercise increases in terms of its outreach. In the QUAD Summit in Tokyo, India decided to participate in the 2022 RIMPAC exercise, hence all four members of QUAD participated. The major reason behind this was the expansion of Chinese influence by using their economic capabilities in the Pacific Islands, and signing security and trade agreements. Therefore, it seemed like a direct signal to the Chinese.
China is a significant exporter of goods and has the biggest manufacturing economy in the world. It is benefiting from its economic power and expanding by taking control of numerous foreign states. To control its expansion, the West and India are trying to contain China through its maritime trade routes as well as land routes. Chinese maritime trades are carried through two major trade routes, i.e., the Indian Ocean route and the Pacific Ocean route. In the Indian Ocean, India has invested in Chabahar Port to counter Chinese presence in the Arabian Sea, but in 2021, Iran and China signed a big deal for 25 years of “Strategic and Economic Partnership,” costing $400 billion under the umbrella of BRI. Also, India has active and strong naval bases at various choke points in the Indian Ocean that are capable of countering Chinese vessels.
Economic containment is another approach that is being used to limit China’s influence. The US and its allies have been promoting free trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which exclude China. Additionally, the US has been working to create alternative infrastructure projects, such as the Blue Dot Network, which aims to promote high-quality infrastructure development in the region and counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
However, the containment strategy is not without its risks and challenges. China has already established deep economic ties with many countries in the region, and the US and its allies may find it difficult to persuade these countries to choose sides. Moreover, China has been building up its military capabilities, including its missile arsenal, which could pose a significant threat to the US and allied forces in the region. Consequently, in October 2022, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, “the West Virginia,” was show cased in the Indian Ocean by the US for the very first time in history. The analysts say that it might be the US’ strong signals for China, Iran, and the whole Asian Region as a reminder of hegemonic deterrence. On the other hand, India, as a so-called strategic ally of the US, practiced a joint military training exercise, “Yudh Abhyas 2022,” in November 2022, near the Sino-Indian border in Uttarakhand. Moreover, China has been using its economic power to exert influence, such as in the case of the ongoing trade war with the US.
In a nutshell, the Indo-Pacific region has become a vital geopolitical arena in the last two decades, with the rise of China at its core. The containment of China in the Asia-Pacific is a complex and challenging task that requires a multifaceted approach. The US and its allies have been implementing a containment strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region. This has involved strengthening existing alliances and creating new ones, increasing military presence, conducting joint military exercises, and promoting free trade agreements. Hence, the competition for power and influence in the Indo-Pacific region is likely to continue, with significant consequences for global geopolitics.
[U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Todd P. Cichonowicz]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The writer is working as a Research Officer at Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN), BUITEMS, Quetta.