DPG Policy Brief

US-China Relations and the Balance of Power in the Indo-Pacific

Date: January 06, 2024
This is the second in a series of annual assessments by the DPG Senior Faculty of significant developments in the international arena during the year 2023. 

The US-China summit held in November 2023 marked a thaw in relations, rather than any attitudinal change.  This Policy Brief focuses on the strategic interests driving relations of the two major great power competitors, the US and China, together with their consequences and impact on the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, as well as ramifications for India. 

The author defines China’s strategic goals that provide the central context of its relations with the US, including territorial expansion, undermining US global influence, and displacing US predominance in East and South East Asia.  However, despite its vigorous effort to assert and enhance regional influence, China faces important headwinds, including an economic downturn and challenges to Xi Jinping’s leadership.  While PLA modernisation to bring it on par with the US military capabilities in the Pacific is ongoing, questions are also rising about the state of the PLA morale and leadership.  Thus, China is in no position just yet to mount a frontal challenge to US global power. 

The US on its part recognises that it faces a complex environment that has the potential to undermine its global dominance, but believes that it has the requisite heft to constrain and contain the China challenge, together with that from Russia.  Nonetheless, the US is getting distracted from its core strategic concerns in the Indo-Pacific, even as it pursues a “cooperate, constrain and contain” strategy to deal with China.  This includes policies to restrict China’s economic rise and technological advancement, improving its own regional posture and that of its allies, and building a regional architecture revolving around a network of bilaterals and minilaterals.  This outlook excludes the Indian Ocean theatre of the Indo-Pacific, where India is the sole Quad partner facing China’s multi-dimensional challenge. 

The author then goes on to assess the implications of the emerging power balance for the Indo-Pacific.  Here, he finds that as long as America remains enmeshed in conflicts elsewhere, its strategic focus is unlikely to fully shift to the Indo-Pacific, providing China a window of strategic opportunity to escalate coercive and grey zone activities both in East Asia and in India’s continental and maritime domains.  This scenario puts greater pressure on middle powers, particularly as uncertainty about US support grows.

With the tenuous balance of power prevailing in the Indo-Pacific, the US and its allies do not have the capacity to be part of meeting any India-specific security challenge.  It is imperative, therefore, for the US and India’s other Quad partners to rethink Indo-Pacific strategy.  It can no longer be a one front equation.  With little or no countervailing support, India must rapidly build up its economic, technological and military power.  There is an imperative need for the US to upgrade its operational priorities in the Indian Ocean region, and in the meanwhile to help India harness its capacities and capabilities similar to what the US is doing in East Asia.  Failing that, while India perceives the US as its most consequential partner, the security benefit it receives from the US will fall well short of reassurance. 

To read this Policy Brief Vol. IX, Issue 2, please click “US-China Relations and the Balance of Power in the Indo-Pacific”.