As China’s military grows, U.S. seeks to appease Asian allies

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Just hours after five Chinese missiles bombarded Japanese waters near Taiwan, foreign ministers from China and Japan found themselves uncomfortably close, in a grand spectacle Thursday night at a meeting of the association Dinner. Southeast Asian countries.

After saluting reporters, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi walked into the room, stopped for three minutes, and then walked to his motorcade. He has scrapped plans for a bilateral meeting with his Japanese counterpart in the Cambodian capital after Japan signed a G7 statement expressing concern over Beijing’s “threatening actions”. But even casual communication can go too far. Witnesses said Mr Wang did not return after leaving.

Across Asia, it was seen as another sign of a more volatile and dangerous environment since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan this week.

On Friday, the Chinese military continued retaliatory drills around the self-governing, democratic island that China claims is its own. U.S. officials are again trying to show they will not be intimidated by China, calling on other countries to condemn China’s actions while looking for ways to de-escalate the situation. As both powers see their efforts in Taiwan as legitimate and justified, the conflict signals an accelerating risk of a broader conflict that could involve more countries and locations at sea and in the air.

The United States intends to heavily arm Taiwan, provide Australia with nuclear submarine propulsion technology and potentially deploy more missiles across the region, as many analysts and officials worry that China’s growing military might make brinkmanship more common and diverse. Exhibitions like this week’s hint at just how far Beijing is willing to go in a region of the world of enormous economic importance that is becoming more militarized and experiencing more close-range threats from deadly weapons.

“We are entering a period where China is more capable and more likely to use force to protect its interests, especially what it sees as core and non-negotiable interests like Taiwan,” said Lin Bonni, director of the China Power Project Center. Strategic and International Studies. At the same time, Beijing has signaled to Taiwan, Japan and other countries, she added, It prefers to escalate to U.S. allies rather than the United States itself.

If the ultimate goal is to push the U.S. to the brink of Asia, as many believe, China seems to think that intimidating or luring other countries away from U.S. ties is more effective than a direct challenge. Even before Ms. Pelosi’s visit, China was beginning to push the boundaries of acceptable military conduct, especially with U.S. allies.

In May, Chinese planes intercepted an Australian maritime reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea, firing flares, slashing the nose and releasing a bundle of chaff into the Australian jet’s engine. U.S. and Australian defense officials called the spat an extremely dangerous move.

That same month, when President Biden visited the region, China and Russia conducted joint exercises in the waters of Northeast Asia, and Chinese jets hummed Canadian planes deployed in Japan, forcing pilots to maneuver to avoid a collision.

Actions around Taiwan go even further – for the first time, a Chinese missile has been fired into the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and the missile flew over Taiwan’s airspace. Together, these tough moves convey what many in the region see as a two-pronged message from China’s leaders: You are vulnerable, and China will not be intimidated by the United States.

Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken sought to counter that argument in a speech to his Southeast Asian counterparts in Cambodia on Friday.

Speaking after China’s King Qishan, Mr. Blinken stressed to the group that Beijing was trying to intimidate not just Taiwan but its neighbors, according to a Western official at the meeting. He called the Chinese government’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s peaceful visit blatantly provocative, referring to the landing of Chinese missiles near Japan and asking: “How would you feel if this happened to you?”

In an afternoon press conference, Mr Blinken said, “We will stand by our allies and partners and work with and through regional organisations to enable friends in the region to do so without coercion. own decision.”

There is some evidence of this. This year, senior U.S. officials have visited Asia more frequently, working out details of expanded partnerships such as a security pact with Australia and the U.K. called AUKUS, and announcing the opening of new embassies in several Pacific island nations.

But doubts about American resolve remain widespread in Asia. Backlash against free trade among many U.S. voters has left both Republican and Democratic leaders reluctant to push for any ambitious trade deal in the region, despite pleas from Asian nations. It’s a glaring omission as China’s economic clout grows.

Some analysts in Washington say the U.S. government has been “over-militarizing” China of late because of their lack of bold economic plans.

Others see America’s diplomatic philosophy and military adaptation as stagnant and lacking in creativity. While China’s rise has accelerated, the US military structure in the region has remained largely unchanged since the end of the Cold War, said Sam Rogovin, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian research institution.

“The security order across Asia was overthrown at that time, but the US military presence was not,” he said. “Given what has happened, their friends and allies in the region are quite concerned that the credibility of U.S. deterrence will be eroded.”

Washington’s apparent inconsistency over Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan — the White House’s top security adviser advised her to avoid Taipei this month — seems only to confirm that even the US is unsure of its footing. After four years of President Donald J. Trump’s presidency, the possibility of another U.S. president pulling out of Asia has never been far from the minds of the region’s leaders.

They know what China wants: to rule Taiwan and keep other countries away from what Beijing claims is an internal affair. For many countries in Southeast Asia, this appears to be easier to meet than what the U.S. might ask for, such as garrisoning troops, gaining naval access or deploying long-range missiles on their soil.

“The number one consideration is how to deal with China and how close it is to the U.S.,” said Oriana Skyler Mastro, a researcher at Stanford University’s Freemans Polly Institute for International Studies, who Focus on China’s security policy. “They don’t want to lean too forward and find themselves too forward.”

Indonesia, which is expected to become the world’s fourth-largest economy by around 2030, is a country that could play a bigger role in shaping regional relations, but it has yet to show interest in moving away from its non-aligned stance.

Vietnam has always been a conundrum for Americans: U.S. officials understand that its hostility to China has a long history, and it may be a natural partner, exacerbated by ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But its ruling Communist Party maintains close ties with its rivals in Beijing, and some U.S. officials say they are aware that Vietnam’s leaders want a wall between the two superpowers.

Cambodia presents another conundrum.China’s economic clout is being felt across the country, with Cambodia’s leaders recently agreeing to let China Expansion and Upgrade A naval base that alarmed Washington.

“What is the U.S. going to do, what is U.S. policy over time, what is China’s power — they’re trying to weigh all those things,” said Ms. Mastro, who is also at the American Enterprise Institute. researcher. “Can they stay out of it?”

Many Asian countries seem to believe that a stronger military would help improve deterrence. Japan increased its military budget by 7.3 percent last year, Singapore by 7.1 percent, South Korea by 4.7 percent and Australia by 4 percent. Research From the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Even when added together, these gains are not enough to match the yuan against the dollar. Beijing’s military spending rose 4.7 percent to $293 billion, down from the U.S.’s $801 billion but up 72 percent from a decade ago.

This trend line will continue to breed anxiety, not only in Washington, but also among America’s closest allies in the region, Australia, South Korea and Japan – and many countries trying not to take sides.

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

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