Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Amid China’s Ascent, the Indo-Pacific Grapples with Rising Insecurity

Chris Hipkins, New Zealand’s relatively new prime minister, recently expressed deep-seated concerns over China’s burgeoning assertiveness and influence, which he believes is jeopardizing the stability of the Indo-Pacific region. “Our region is becoming more contested, less predictable, and less secure,” Hipkins said in a speech to the China Business Summit on Monday. “China’s rise and how it seeks to exert that influence is also a major driver of the increasing strategic competition, particularly in our wider home region, the Indo-Pacific.”

Over the last decade, China’s pursuits in the Indo-Pacific have exhibited a mix of economic, geopolitical, and strategic objectives. A case in point is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its leading foreign policy venture that transcends the Indo-Pacific to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The BRI is an ambitious plan to bolster infrastructure development and connectivity across Asia, Europe, Africa, and beyond. Through these projects, China aims to broaden its economic sway and tap into strategic locations and resources.

Hipkins, among other leaders, is deeply unsettled by China’s more aggressive approach to its territorial claims in the South China Sea. This includes the construction and militarization of artificial islands, fortifying its regional presence to solidify control over disputed territories and amplify its maritime influence. This could potentially give China a tighter grip over crucial sea lanes and resources.

China has made significant strides in modernizing its military capabilities, with a particular emphasis on its naval forces, in recent years. This includes the development of advanced surface vessels, submarines, and aircraft carriers, all aimed at enhancing its power projection, safeguarding its maritime interests, and possibly challenging the United States’ naval supremacy in the region.

While China has been proactive in deepening economic ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific region through increased trade, investments, and regional economic initiatives, there’s more to this than meets the eye. Indeed, China has established platforms such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)—a free trade agreement involving 15 Asia-Pacific nations—primarily to bolster its economic dominance, foster closer relationships with regional partners, and reduce its reliance on Western markets.

Beijing appreciates the far-reaching implications of diplomacy. Recognizing the potential gains from soft power as opposed to hard power, China has launched diplomatic initiatives including high-level visits, bilateral agreements, and regional forums to strengthen its influence in the region. This includes alternative initiatives to Western-dominated financial institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China has also leveraged its economic influence to cultivate closer ties with countries, sparking concerns over potential political sway and debt diplomacy.

Despite China’s clear ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region, it has encountered resistance from various regional partners, notably the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. These nations have sought to fortify their alliances, escalate military cooperation, and advocate for a rules-based order in the region to counterbalance China’s growing clout. This resistance has heightened regional tensions and increased military activities, particularly in the South China Sea.

China’s ambitions have elicited deep concerns and pose potential threats to regional security. Its assertive actions in the South China Sea, including the creation and militarization of artificial islands, have amplified tensions and territorial disputes with neighboring countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Such actions challenge the existing international order and risk destabilizing the region.

China’s expanding naval activities and capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, paired with its territorial claims, heighten concerns about potential disruptions to freedom of navigation and the security of crucial sea lanes. These disruptions could adversely affect trade, economic stability, and countries’ ability to access key resources. China’s military modernization, including the development of advanced naval vessels, hints at an intention to project power beyond its immediate borders. This could potentially challenge the traditional military balance in the region and escalate the risk of conflicts or miscalculations. China’s economic expansion and investments have sparked worries over potential economic coercion and undue influence, possibly compromising the sovereignty of nations heavily reliant on Chinese investments or trade, thereby undermining regional stability.

China’s overarching diplomatic maneuvers, assertive posture, and saber-rattling have spurred heightened geopolitical competition, including increased military activities, alliances, and partnerships, potentially escalating tensions and destabilizing the region. While these concerns do not herald imminent conflict, they underscore the potential risks and challenges posed by China’s ambitions to Indo-Pacific security. Although constructive dialogue, diplomatic efforts, and adherence to international norms and rules might help navigate these challenges elsewhere, the unique dynamics of the Indo-Pacific demand more.