The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) describes China as a revisionist power seeking to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. It is an accurate characterization which was resisted by previous American administrations despite there being little evidence that China is content to be a "responsible stakeholder" under a U.S.-led order.
The Chinese desire to gradually exclude the United States and reduce the latter's role in strategic affairs in the region preceded the current regime of Xi Jinping. However, Xi has intensified China's use of all the instruments of national power to further its goal of regaining the preponderant position in East Asia. Given explicit U.S. security guarantees offered to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan--themselves formidable military powers--Beijing has identified Southeast Asia as a region of immense strategic importance and opportunity. It is in this sub-region consisting of eleven countries and home to over six hundred million people that China has been the most proactive and assertive.
Consider China's illegal artificial island building program and militarization of features in the South China Sea which have accelerated in the Xi era. This is designed to extend Beijing's control of those areas and increase its capacity to defend them against "intrusions." It also enhances China's ability to inflict heavy and possibly "prohibitive" costs on military assets of other countries including the United States. It also extends Beijing's capacity to implement its "active defense" approach which states that an effective counter-attack is only possible when the People's Liberation Army can negate the enemy's offensive military assets in predetetmined areas.
The purpose of this approach is not simply a one-dimensional one of winning any potential battle with the United States or another adversary. China does not need the capacity to win a "battle" to win the "war." If it can create the reasonable expectation that the real prospect of military conflict will cause the United States to back away--either because of the "prohibitive" threat of loss of major military assets and personnel or unacceptable economic disruption--the damage to the relevance and reliability of the United States as an alliance partner and security guarantor becomes considerable.
Similarly, China uses its economic role and weight to seduce, trap or else coerce smaller nations to agree with or else remain neutral when it comes to Beijing's activities in the region, albeit with mixed results. Its covert influence and political interference activities are also designed in large part to reduce enthusiasm for existing alliances and security relationships with the United States, increase support for Chinese policies and silence dissenting voices in target countries.
Chinese strategy is about countering the United States. It seeks to vitiate existing U.S. alliances and security partnerships in the region and restrict the latter's access to the regional commons needed to secure and extend U.S. power, influence and forward presence. China has moved on from seeking to understand the sources of American power and influence toward increasingly bold attempts to limit, circumvent, bind or otherwise reduce American power and influence. Southeast Asia is the frontline of this strategy.
Moreover, Chinese gains in the South China Sea reinforce the conviction that Chinese predominance is inevitable, fast approaching, and the United States has little ability or will to counter Chinese actions or reverse the broader trendline. These messages reinforce a further Chinese narrative: that American presence in the region is a historical accident and that the latter is here by choice rather than geographical necessity. As the reasoning goes, it is more prudent for Southeast Asian allies and partners to hedge rather than balance against China as a peripatetic United States is likely to abandon its commitments should they become too onerous--better for regional nations to remain neutral and stay on the sidelines than join in futile balancing and countering efforts against China.
In April 2017, Japan released its "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy," which describes how Tokyo will broaden its worldview and strategic role in the Indo-Pacific as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's long-standing desire to make a "proactive contribution to peace." In November 2017, Australia released its Foreign Policy White Paper, which is the country's first comprehensive blueprint to guide Australia's external engagement since 2003. The key theme of the white paper is the strengthening and defense of "an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region."
One month later, the White House released the National Security Strategy of the United States of America. The NSS promised that the United States will "respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world." The NSS identified China and Russia as seeking to "challenge American power, influence, and interests" whilst attempting to "erode American security and prosperity." In placing the NSS in a regional context, the document argues that "[a] geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region." The strategic response is...