Influence of U.S. Versus Chinese Powers of Persuasion in Indo-Pacific region

“China’s Influence Is Economic, While America’s Is Diplomacy and Defense”

BY: RAND

Influence of U.S. Versus Chinese Powers of Persuasion in Indo-Pacific region

PEJOURNAL – U.S. policymakers and experts are focused on two central questions about long-term strategic competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC): How do we assess how well the United States is doing relative to China, and which country has more influence in the Indo-Pacific region?

RAND Project AIR FORCE researchers addressed these two questions by first defining what influence means in the context of great-power competition and creating a framework to measure U.S. versus PRC influence. The result brings into focus a well-defined picture of the United States and China’s strengths and weaknesses in third countries in the Indo-Pacific—in short, a snapshot of whether the United States or China is “winning” the competition for influence and where.

To understand whether the United States or China is “winning” the competition for influence, RAND researchers traveled to nine countries in the Indo-Pacific in late 2018 and early 2019 and interviewed and consulted with more than 100 U.S. and partner government officials and academic experts. Researchers analyzed official documents, academic reports, and data on U.S. and Chinese activities to answer these four questions:

What Are Influence and Competition for Influence?

The United States and China both hope to persuade other countries to partner with them. Influence is the ability of one actor to shape the behavior of another actor. When it comes to U.S.-China competition, relative influence is key: What interests do third countries share with the United States or China, and what resources or capabilities can the two countries use to incentivize or coerce partners?

Competition for influence is dynamic and continuous. In contrast to U.S. military conflict with China, where China is the primary target and adversary that the United States seeks to defeat, U.S. peacetime competition with China is focused on shaping a partner’s choices to favor the United States. There is unlikely to be a single, clear, and final victory in competition.

Peacetime Competition Differs From Military Conflict

Peacetime Competition for InfluenceMilitary Conflict
GoalEncourage partner support for the United States on major issues.Defeat China politically and militarily.
TargetPartnerChina
MeansExtent of shared partner interests with the United States (compared with China) and relative U.S. capability incentivize or coerce the partner (compared with China).Balance of interests and balance of capabilities between the United States and China.
Desired End StateNo single, clear, and final victory. Instead, the United States continuously obtains partner support (“wins”) on major decisions.Clear U.S. political and military victory over China.

What Are the United States and China Competing Over?

Competing visions and objectives for the Indo-Pacific drive U.S.-China competition. The U.S. vision is based on maintaining regional freedom and openness and ensuring security and stability. China’s vision involves expanding its power, fostering regional integration and dependence on China, limiting the role of outside powers, and bringing Southeast Asia under Beijing’s leadership.

These divergent goals cause the United States and China to prioritize expanding their influence among different partners. The research team examined the importance the United States and China attached to Southeast Asian partners and ranked countries as high, medium, and low priority. Overlapping U.S. and PRC priority countries allowed the researchers to identify where we expect the most intense U.S.-China competition: in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Competition Is More Intense Where Priorities Overlap

High PriorityMedium PriorityLow Priority
High PriorityNo countriesIndonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, VietnamNo countries
Medium PriorityMalaysia, ThailandNo countriesNo countries
Low PriorityBurmaCambodia, LaosBrunei
*The United States *China

How Can Relative Influence Be Measured and Assessed?

The researchers developed a basic framework with 14 variables to measure and assess how regional countries view U.S. and PRC influence. The framework consists of eight variables that measure a partner’s shared interests with the United States (or China) and six variables that measure the relative diplomatic, economic, and military capabilities and resources the United States (or China) could use to convince partners to side with them. The variables capture:

  • Diplomatic and political influence (bilateral relationships, support for U.S. or PRC vision, views of U.S. commitment to the region, regional public opinion of both countries)
  • Economic influence (economic dependence on either country, assessments of economic opportunity, economic threat perception, willingness to work with the United States versus China)
  • Military and security influence (military threat perception, willingness to work with the United States versus China, support for U.S. efforts, military cooperation, military capabilities, U.S. willingness to aid the country in a potential conflict against China).

How Do Regional Countries View the United States and China?

The RAND team applied the framework to the six Southeast Asian countries where competition is most intense and to three key U.S. allies and partners in the region: Australia, Japan, and India. The table below displays the coding of each variable for all nine countries. Each variable captures where the partner is on a range between stronger U.S. influence on one end (blue) and stronger Chinese influence on the other end (red).

The table and the corresponding RAND analysis show that the United States and China have different strengths and approaches to competition:

  • Regional countries view the United States as having more diplomatic and military influence than China. China, however, has more economic influence.
  • Southeast Asian countries rank economic development over security concerns and are generally more worried about Chinese economic influence than Chinese military threats.
  • China can leverage its economic influence for a variety of goals, including to weaken U.S. military influence. In contrast, there is little evidence that Southeast Asian countries believe that U.S. military influence is a counterweight to Chinese economic influence.
  • Regional countries have more shared interests with the United States, but China has more tools it is willing to use against Southeast Asia, including more incentives (“carrots”) and coercive capacity (“sticks”).
  • Regional countries prefer to not choose between the United States and China and may not side with the United States if forced to pick. Partner alignment is likely to be weak and incomplete.

Overall, neither the United States nor China is clearly “winning” the competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific region as whole, and they have varying levels of influence across countries. U.S. influence is greater in Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Singapore than in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific

In long-term strategic competition with China, how effectively the United States works with allies and partners will be critical to determining U.S. success. To enable closer cooperation, the United States will need to understand how allies and partners view the United States and China and how they are responding to U.S.-China competition.

In this report, which is the main report of a series on U.S.-China competition in the Indo-Pacific, the authors define what U.S.-China competition for influence involves and comparatively assess U.S.-China competition for influence in six countries in Southeast Asia—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—as well as the roles of three U.S. allies and partners that are active in Southeast Asia—Australia, India, and Japan. The authors first explore why the United States is competing with China in the Indo-Pacific and what the two are competing for.

They then develop a framework that uses 14 variables to assess relative U.S.-Chinese influence across countries in the Indo-Pacific. Drawing from interviews in all nine countries and data gathered, the authors apply this framework to assess how regional countries view U.S.-China competition in their respective countries and how China views competition in each of the regional countries. Finally, the authors discuss how the United States could work more effectively with allies and partners in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Key Findings

The United States and China have different strengths and approaches to competition

  • Regional countries view the United States as having more diplomatic and military influence than China, and China as having more economic influence.
  • Southeast Asian countries rank economic development over security concerns and are generally more worried about Chinese economic influence than Chinese military threats.
  • China can leverage its economic influence for a variety of goals, including to weaken U.S. military influence. In contrast, there is no evidence that Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries believe that U.S. military influence serves as a counterweight against Chinese economic influence.
  • Regional countries have more shared interests with the United States, but Beijing has more tools it is willing to use against Southeast Asia, including more incentives (“carrots”) and coercive capacity (“sticks”).
  • Regional countries prefer to not choose between the United States or China and may not side with the United States if forced to pick. Partner alignment is likely to be weak and incomplete.
  • In competition, influence—the ability of one actor to shape the actions of another—is relative, and depends on a partner’s shared interests with the United States (versus China) and what the United States can offer the partner (versus China).
  • Across the Indo-Pacific region, China has more economic influence and the United States has more diplomatic and military sway, but partners generally value economic development over security concerns.
  • The United States has more influence than China in Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Singapore; similar influence in Indonesia; and relatively less influence in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The United States could work more effectively with allies and partners

  • While direct, bilateral cooperation should remain the primary effort, the United States should do more to coordinate with Australia, India, and Japan in Southeast Asia.
  • Coordinating with allies and partners to engage third countries provides four main benefits to the United States: Coordination (1) pools resources, (2) facilitates division of labor that leverages unique allied and partner strengths and relationships, (3) counters PRC influence in countries with which the United States cannot fully engage, and (4) achieves U.S. objectives without asking regional countries to explicitly align themselves with the United States (which regional countries are wary of doing).
  • There are five main challenges to effective coordination: (1) government biases and processes favor bilateral efforts instead of cooperation in engaging third countries; (2) the dominant narrative portrays U.S.-China competition in bilateral terms and does not take into account allied and partner contributions; (3) regional countries seek unique and separate relationships with the United States, and there are divergences in interests between the United States, allies, and partners; (4) Chinese influence in allies and partners could undermine their ability and willingness to coordinate with the United States; and (5) differing U.S., allied, and partner planning and budget cycles complicate efforts to develop coordinated or joint plans.

Recommendations

  • Develop a list of U.S. objectives and priority countries for competition with China for each region (including the Indo-Pacific) to enable whole-of-government competition.
  • Develop targeted nonmilitary means to counter Chinese economic influence in the Indo-Pacific.
  • Improve public messaging on the economic benefits and value that U.S. military and security cooperation bring to regional countries.
  • Improve U.S. public messaging on U.S.-China competition by increasing messaging on allied and partner contributions and combined efforts.
  • Increase defense activities with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, four countries in which Chinese influence is growing.
  • Establish a minimum requirement within the Department of Defense to consult and share U.S. engagement objectives, plans, and activities in the Indo-Pacific with Australia, India, and Japan.
  • Expand institution capacity building efforts to deepen shared security interests.
  • Avoid framing activities with regional countries mainly in U.S.-China competition terms; consider creative ways to design engagements to achieve similar objectives while avoiding the optics of requiring the partner to choose between the United States or China.
  • Initiate a pilot project to develop common five-year security cooperation plans between the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force for Indonesia or Malaysia and between the U.S. Air Force and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force for the Philippines or Vietnam.
  • Encourage Indonesia to increase its military activities in the South China Sea and areas such as the Natunas by conducting operations and participating in multilateral air and maritime activities.
  • Propose new avenues of U.S. Air Force engagement with Malaysia through its membership in the Five Power Defense Arrangements.
  • In Thailand, strive to maintain preferential access and use of U-Tapao—one of the largest airfields in Southeast Asia.
  • Leverage senior U.S. engagements with the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense to emphasize the importance of routinizing service-to-service cooperation.
  • For Australia, develop options to expand the Enhanced Air Cooperation component of the Force Posture Initiatives and consider conducting rotational deployments of U.S. Air Force bombers to northern Australia.

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