Rising to the China Challenge

Renewing American Competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific

Center for a New American Security – January 28, 2020

An independent assessment for Congress as mandated by the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

By Ely Ratner, Daniel Kliman, Susanna V. Blume, ​Rush Doshi, Chris Dougherty, Richard Fontaine, Peter Harrell, Martijn Rasser, Elizabeth Rosenberg, Eric Sayers, Daleep Singh, Paul Scharre, Loren DeJonge Schulman, ​Neil Bhatiya, Ashley Feng, Joshua Fitt, Megan Lamberth, Kristine Lee and Ainikki Riikonen Facebook Twitter LinkedIn


Foundational Principles of U.S. Strategy in the Indo-Pacific

The United States and China are locked in strategic competition over the future of the Indo-Pacific—the most populous, dynamic, and consequential region in the world. At stake are competing visions for the rules, norms, and institutions that will govern international relations in the decades to come.1

The U.S. government aspires toward a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, defined by respect for sovereignty and the independence of nations, peaceful resolution of disputes, free and fair trade, adherence to international law, and greater transparency and good governance.2 For the United States, successful realization of this regional order would include strong U.S. alliances and security partnerships; a military able to operate throughout the region, consistent with international law; U.S. firms with access to leading markets, and benefiting from updated technology standards, investment rules, and trade agreements; U.S. participation in effective regional and international institutions; and the spread of democracy and individual freedoms in the context of an open information environment and vibrant civil society.3

By contrast, China is driving toward a more closed and illiberal future for the Indo-Pacific, core aspects of which would undermine vital U.S. interests.4 Key features of China-led order would include the People’s Liberation Army controlling the South and East China Seas; regional countries sufficiently coerced into acquiescing to China’s preferences on military, economic, and diplomatic matters; an economic order in which Beijing sets trade and investment rules in its favor, with dominance over leading technologies, data, and standards; and Beijing with de facto rule over Taiwan and agenda-setting power over regional institutions. The order would be further characterized by weak civil society, a dearth of independent media, and the gradual spread of authoritarianism, reinforced by the proliferation of China’s high-tech surveillance state. The net result would be a less secure, less prosperous United States that is less able to exert power and influence in the world.5

Ultimately, the competition between the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific is a contest over which of these futures will come closer to fruition, even as neither is likely to attain in its entirety. In the two years since the 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy aptly identified this competition over the regional order in Asia, the U.S. government has taken initial steps toward its goal of a free and open region. On balance, however, critical areas of U.S. policy remain inconsistent, uncoordinated, underresourced, and—to be blunt—uncompetitive and counterproductive to advancing U.S. values and interests.

This independent assessment—mandated by the U.S. Congress in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act—is intended to help close the considerable gap between the current administration’s stated aspirations for a free and open Indo-Pacific and the actual implementation of policies to advance that vision. Specifically, Congress called for “an assessment of the geopolitical conditions in the Indo-Pacific region that are necessary for the successful implementation of the National Defense Strategy,” with a particular focus on how to “support United States military requirements for forward defense, assured access, extensive forward basing, and alliance and partnership formation and strengthening in such region.”6

This report examines how the U.S. government as a whole, not just the Department of Defense, can realize these outcomes. Although the focus of this assessment is on the Indo-Pacific, it is critical to underscore that the China challenge is a global phenomenon, and many of the actions recommended in this report should be taken to bolster U.S. competitiveness beyond the region.

Consistent with the bipartisan mission of the Center for a New American Security, the report’s authors have collectively served on both sides of the aisle in Congress and in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump at the White House, State Department, Defense Department, Treasury Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Included herein are nearly a hundred specific and actionable policy recommendations across critical vectors of American competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific. Before turning to these recommendations, the remainder of this section describes six core principles that undergird the assessment and should form the foundations of U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.



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