World · August 5, 2022

The US tries to reassure its Asian allies as the Chinese military grows bolder

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – A few hours after five Chinese missiles were launched into Japanese waters near Taiwan, the foreign ministers of China and Japan found themselves uncomfortably close together, in the waiting room for a gala dinner Thursday night in a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, greeted reporters before entering the room, stayed for three minutes, then went to his motorcade. He had already canceled plans for a bilateral meeting with his Japanese counterpart in the Cambodian capital after Japan signed a Group of 7 Nations statement expressing concern over Beijing’s “threatening actions”. But the prospect of even a casual exchange might have been too much; Witnesses said Mr. Wang left and did not return.

Across Asia, it was seen as another sign of the more volatile and dangerous environment that emerged from the visit to Taiwan this week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Chinese military retaliatory drills continued on Friday around the self-governing democratic island, which China claims as its own. American officials again tried to show that they would not be intimidated by China, by rallying other nations to denounce its actions, while looking for ways to lessen the escalation. With both great powers arguing that their efforts involving Taiwan were reasonable, escalating tensions indicated the growing risks of a wider conflict, which could involve more countries.

The U.S. intends to heavily arm Taiwan, provide Australia with nuclear submarine propulsion technology, and possibly base more missiles across the region, as many analysts and officials fear that China’s growing military might will make capability more common and varied. of maneuver. Displays like this week’s one give a hint of how far Beijing is willing to go to an area of ​​the world of enormous economic importance that is becoming more and more militarized and is undergoing closer calls with deadly weapons.

“We are entering a period where China is more capable and likely uses force to protect its interests, particularly interests that it considers as fundamental and non-negotiable as Taiwan,” said Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center. for Strategic and International Studies. At the same time, she added, Beijing reported Taiwan, Japan and others which is more willing to step up against US allies than against the US itself.

If the ultimate goal is to sideline the United States in Asia, as many believe, China seems to think that scaring or luring other countries away from American ties would be more productive than a direct challenge. Even before Ms. Pelosi’s trip, China had begun to push the boundaries of acceptable military behavior, especially with America’s allies.

In the same month, China and Russia conducted joint exercises over the seas of Northeast Asia while President Biden was visiting the region, and Chinese jets buzzed Canadian planes deployed in Japan, forcing pilots to maneuver to avoid a collision.

Actions around Taiwan go further: with Chinese missiles launched for the first time in the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone and with missiles launched into Taiwanese airspace. Together, the beefy moves carry what many in the region see as a layered message from Chinese leaders: you are vulnerable and China will not be deterred by the United States.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken tried to counter this argument Friday in a speech to his Southeast Asian counterparts in Cambodia.

According to a Western official in attendance, Mr. Blinken, speaking after Mr. Wang of China, told the group that Beijing had tried to intimidate not only Taiwan but its neighbors as well. Calling the Chinese government’s response to a peaceful visit from Ms. Pelosi blatantly provocative, he referred to Chinese missiles landing near Japan and asked, “How would you feel if that happened to you?”

In a press conference, Blinken said, “We will stand by our allies and partners and work with and through regional organizations to enable friends in the region to make their own decisions without coercion.”

There is some evidence of this. Senior US officials have been more frequent visitors to Asia this year, working on expanded partnerships such as the AUKUS security pact with Australia and Britain and announcing that new embassies would be opened in several Pacific island nations.

But doubts about American determination remain common in Asia. A backlash against free trade has left Republican and Democratic leaders reluctant to push for ambitious trade deals in the region, despite the demands of Asian nations. This is a glaring omission as China’s economic weight grows.

Some analysts in Washington say that recent US administrations have “over-militarized” the Chinese question because they lack bold economic plans.

Others see stagnation with American diplomatic ideas and military adaptation. Sam Roggeveen, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, at the Australian research institute, noted that as China’s rise has accelerated, the US military structure in the region remains essentially unchanged since the end of the Cold War.

“The whole security order in Asia was overturned at that moment,” he said. “Given all that has happened, their friends and allies in the region are reasonably concerned about the erosion of the credibility of American deterrence.”

The ambivalence in Washington about Ms. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan – with top White House security advisers suggesting she cancel it – seemed to confirm that even the United States is not sure of its position. And after the Trump years, the possibility of another American president moving away from Asia is never far from the minds of the leaders of the region.

They know what China wants: to rule Taiwan and other countries to stay out of what Beijing claims to be its internal affairs. And for many countries in Southeast Asia, it seems easier to please than the United States might require, such as stationing troops, naval access, or installing long-range missiles on their territory.

“The no. One consideration is how to respond to China and how close to the United States,” said Oriana Skyler Mastro, a researcher at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. They don’t want to “get too far ahead.”

Indonesia, which is expected to have the fourth largest economy in the world around 2030, may play a more important role in shaping regional relations, but it has yet to show much interest in getting out of its non-aligned position.

Vietnam is a persistent conundrum for Americans: US officials understand its long history of hostility towards China, exacerbated by continuing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, so it could be a natural partner. But some American officials say they are realizing that Vietnamese leaders want to jump the fence with both superpowers.

Cambodia presents another dilemma. China’s economic influence is felt across the country and Cambodian leaders recently agreed to expand and upgrade a Chinese naval base, alarming Washington.

“There is a combination of what the United States is going to do, what is the policy of the United States over time, and what is Chinese power like,” said Ms. Mastro, “And can they stay out of it?”

Many countries seem to be betting on a stronger army. According to research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Japan increased its military budget by 7.3% last year, Singapore by 7.1%, South Korea by 4.7% and Australia by 4%. .

Even combined, these increases failed to match Chinese dollar for dollar. Beijing increased its military spending by 4.7%, to $ 293 billion, less than the $ 801 billion spent by the United States, but a 72% increase from spending a decade ago.

That trend line will continue to generate anxiety not only in Washington, but among America’s closest allies in the region, Australia, South Korea and Japan, and in many of the countries that have tried not to choose which side to take.

Edward Wong reported from Phnom Penh and Damien Cave from Sydney, Australia. Ben Dooley contributed reports from Tokyo.