WASHINGTON – Through nearly three years in office, the Trump administration has made a lot of noise about competing with China geopolitically but has often struggled to lay out, coherently, what America seeks to achieve. So it is encouraging that the State Department is beginning to articulate a sharper idea of what the United States is against in the Indo-Pacific — and, more importantly — what it is for.
The guiding concept: “Pluralism.” That may not sound very sexy, but it captures the essential difference in U.S. and Chinese visions for the region. And, significantly, it taps into three of the richest historical traditions of American grand strategy.
David Stillwell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, explained this strategy of pluralism in a speech in Washington last week. The basic idea is that the U.S. doesn’t need to dominate the Indo-Pacific or force the region to conform to any single model, so long as no one else can dominate the region or make it conform to a single model, either. A pluralistic region is one in which countries are free to make their own security, economic and political choices — where “they are secure in their sovereign autonomy” and “no hegemonic power dominates or coerces them.” Pluralism is about preserving the freedom and openness in which diversity can flourish.
In practice, this means that the U.S. will help the countries of the Indo-Pacific balance against a rising China that is increasingly trying to narrow the range of choices available to them through the use of political influence campaigns, economic pressures and geopolitical coercion. Beijing’s efforts to weaken U.S. alliances, its financing of pro-China politicians in countries throughout the region, its creeping expansion of naval influence in the South China Sea, its ongoing military buildup, and its use of loans and investments — as well as economic punishments such as selective embargoes — are all part of this project.
For Washington, maintaining the balance will require individualized relationships with a diverse set of partners: Democratic treaty allies such as Japan and Australia, emerging democratic partners such as India, and authoritarian regimes — Vietnam, Singapore — that do not share America’s preference for liberal politics at home but do want to preserve their freedom of action in a crowded region.
Pluralism also entails rejecting any notion that the U.S. will require allies and partners to sever their ties with Beijing. The U.S., rather, should help its partners take the precautionary steps necessary to ensure that Beijing does not exploit those ties to undermine their economic, technological or political sovereignty.
There are, admittedly, some problems here. To some extent Stillwell’s speech conflated pluralism, which is about respect for free choice, with multipolarity, which is about having several, roughly balanced centers of power. The latter is closer to China’s preferred world than America’s, simply because the U.S. needs superior hard power if it is to protect pluralism in regions that are thousands of kilometers away. But in general, pluralism offers a useful distillation of what the U.S. aims to prevent China from doing in the Indo-Pacific and around the world, and it should appeal to the broad array of countries in the region that are nervous about Chinese power but are also nervous that Washington may ask them to make a harder break with Beijing than they feel prudent. Not least, the concept is noteworthy because it draws together three venerable traditions from America’s diplomatic past.
The first is hegemonic denial, or the idea that America’s core geopolitical interest lies in preventing any hostile country from controlling the resources of crucial overseas regions — particularly Europe, East Asia and the Middle East. This idea traces back to the writings of the naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan in the late 19th century, who understood the importance of the Pacific to U.S. national security. It motivated America’s participation in two hot wars and a cold one during the 20th century.
It is again relevant today. China is not threatening to physically invade the countries of the Indo-Pacific, but it is seeking to draw them into its diplomatic, economic and political orbit, and to deprive the U.S. of its ability to balance Beijing’s power by weakening America’s geopolitical relationships in the region. Pluralism, in this sense, reflects a long tradition of using America’s great power to maintain a balance of power in key regions.
The second tradition is self-determination, or the ability of independent countries to work out their destinies free from coercion or intimidation. That idea originated with Woodrow Wilson, and it became a key tenet of American grand strategy during and after World War II. It reflected the belief that the denial of self-determination tore at the fabric of international peace, by threatening to take the world back to the might-makes-right ethos of earlier eras. And it served American foreign policy well, because it allowed the U.S. (usually, if not in all cases) to pursue its own interests by supporting the ambitions of other independent states around the world.
The third tradition might be thought of as the “free world” model of American statecraft. During the Cold War, the U.S. did not confine itself to working with any single type of partner. The free world, rather, was a diverse — critics might have said motley — collection of states that included the liberal democracies of Western Europe as well as some relatively despicable authoritarian states in the Third World.
The U.S. was not indifferent to the fate of democratic values in the world, and it became more forceful in promoting those values over time. But officials understood that the primary criterion for membership in the free world was simply a commitment to opposing those countries — the Soviet Union and its allies — that sought to snuff out political freedom and real freedom of choice in global affairs. That remains a good mental model for thinking about the Indo-Pacific today, given the breadth of countries and governments with which the U.S. will have to work.
Translating these ideas into effective policies will require that the U.S. do a variety of things far better than the Trump administration has done to date: creating better free-world trading and technological partnerships; developing the innovative capabilities and concepts needed to prevent Chinese military power from overawing the region; simply showing up at key regional meetings. But at the very least, the U.S. is building a better conceptual framework for its policies in the Indo-Pacific, one that earlier generations of American strategists would recognize quite well.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg columnist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.