U.S. Seeks to Reassure Asian Allies as China’s Military Grows Bolder

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The Biden administration says its commitment to the region has only deepened, but critics say the tensions over Taiwan show that Washington needs stronger military and economic strategies.
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Edward Wong and
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Just a few hours after five Chinese missiles blasted into Japanese waters near Taiwan, the foreign ministers of China and Japan found themselves uncomfortably close together, in the holding room for a gala dinner on Thursday night at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, saluted reporters before stepping into the room, stayed for three minutes, then walked out to his motorcade. He had already canceled plans for a bilateral meeting with his Japanese counterpart in the Cambodian capital after Japan signed on to a statement by the Group of 7 nations expressing concern about 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.
All across Asia, it was seen as another sign of the more unstable and dangerous environment that has emerged since the visit to Taiwan this week by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
Retaliatory exercises by the Chinese military continued on Friday around the self-governing, democratic island, which China claims as its own. American officials tried again to show they would not be intimidated by China, rallying other nations to denounce its actions, while looking for ways to de-escalate. With both great powers arguing that their efforts involving Taiwan were reasonable, the intensifying tensions pointed to the accelerating risks of a wider conflict, possibly involving more countries.
The United States intends to heavily arm Taiwan, give Australia technology for nuclear submarine propulsion and possibly base more missiles throughout the region, as many analysts and officials worry that China’s growing military might will make brinkmanship more common and varied. Displays like the one this week give a hint of how far Beijing is willing to go in an area of the world with enormous economic importance that is becoming more militarized and experiencing more close calls with deadly weapons.
“We’re entering a period where China is more capable of and likely to use force to protect its interests, especially interests that it views as core and nonnegotiable like 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 has signaled to Taiwan, Japan and others that it is more willing to escalate against U.S. allies than against the United States itself.
If the eventual goal is to push the United States onto the sidelines 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 pushing the boundaries of acceptable military behavior, especially with America’s allies.
In May, Chinese aircraft dangerously intercepted an Australian surveillance flight in international airspace over the South China Sea, firing flares and releasing a bundle of chaff into the Australian jet’s engine.
That same month, China and Russia conducted joint exercises over the seas in northeast Asia as President Biden was visiting the region, and Chinese jets buzzed Canadian aircraft deployed in Japan, forcing pilots into maneuvers to avoid a collision.
The actions around Taiwan go further — with Chinese missiles fired into the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone for the first time and with missiles fired over Taiwanese air space. Together, the muscled-up moves carry what many in the region see as a layered message from China’s leaders: You’re vulnerable, and China will not be deterred by the United States.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken sought to counter that argument on Friday in a speech to 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 sought to intimidate not only Taiwan, but also its neighbors. Calling the Chinese government’s response to a peaceful visit by Ms. Pelosi flagrantly provocative, he referred to the Chinese missiles landing near Japan and asked: “How would you feel if this happened to you?”
What does China mean to Taiwan? China claims Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy of 23 million people, as its territory and has long vowed to take it back, by force if necessary. The island, to which Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces retreated after the Communist Revolution of 1949, has never been part of the People’s Republic of China.
What does Xi Jinping want? China’s leader has made it clearer than any of his predecessors that he sees unifying Taiwan with China to be a primary goal of his rule — and a key to what he calls China’s “national rejuvenation.” Mr. Xi is also keen to project an image of strength ahead of his expected confirmation to an unprecedented third term this fall.
How is the U.S. involved? In an intentionally ambiguous diplomatic arrangement adopted in 1979, the United States maintains a “one China” policy that acknowledges, but does not endorse, Beijing’s claim over Taiwan. U.S. leaders have remained vague about how they would help Taiwan if China attacked, but President Biden has pledged to defend the island.
Why are tensions rising now? Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip to Taiwan has ignited regional tensions. She is the highest-level American official to visit the island since 1997. A chorus of official Chinese bodies portrayed her trip as part of an American effort to sabotage China’s efforts at unification with Taiwan.
How is China responding? A day after Ms. Pelosi’s trip, China began live-fire military drills near Taiwan, with missiles striking seas off the island, including five that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone waters. Amid growing international criticism, Beijing then sent warships and aircraft into waters and airspace near the island.
At a news conference, Mr. Blinken said, “We will stick by our allies and partners, and work with and through regional organizations to enable friends in the region to make their own decisions free from coercion.”
There is some evidence of that. Senior American officials have been more frequent visitors to Asia this year, working on expanded partnerships like the security pact called AUKUS with Australia and Britain, and announcing that new embassies would be opened in several Pacific Island nations.
But doubts about American resolve remain common in Asia. A backlash against free trade has left both Republican and Democratic leaders reluctant to push for any ambitious trade agreements in the region, despite the pleas of Asian nations. That is a glaring omission as China’s economic clout grows.
Some analysts in Washington say recent U.S. administrations have been “over-militarizing” the China issue 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, an Australian research institute, noted that while China’s rise has accelerated, America’s military structure in the region remains essentially unchanged from the end of the Cold War.
“The whole security order in Asia has been overturned in that time,” he said. “Given all that has happened, their friends and allies in the region are quite reasonably worried about the eroding credibility of American deterrence.”
The ambivalence in Washington about Ms. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan — with top White House security advisers suggesting that she cancel it — seemed to confirm that not even the United States is sure of its footing. And after the Trump years, the possibility of another American president pulling away from Asia is never far from the minds of the region’s leaders.
They know what China wants: to rule over Taiwan and for other countries to stay out of what Beijing asserts are its internal affairs. And for many countries in Southeast Asia, that looks easier to accommodate than what the United States might request, like stationing troops, being granted naval access, or basing long-range missiles on their territory.
“The No. 1 consideration is how to respond to China and how close to get to the United States,” said Oriana Skyler Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. They don’t want to “find themselves too far out front.”
Indonesia, which is projected to have the world’s fourth-largest economy around 2030, could play a larger role in shaping regional relations, but it has yet to show much interest in stepping out of its nonaligned position.
Vietnam is a persistent conundrum for the Americans: U.S. officials understand its long history of animus toward 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 straddle the fence with both superpowers.
Cambodia presents another quandary. China’s economic influence is felt throughout the country, and Cambodian leaders recently agreed to have China expand and upgrade a naval base, alarming Washington.
“There is a combination of what is the United States going to do, what is the policy of the United States over time, and what is Chinese power like,” Ms. Mastro said “And can they stay out of it?”
Many countries seem to be betting on a stronger military. 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, according to research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Even combined, those increases failed to match China dollar for dollar. Beijing increased its military spending by 4.7 percent, to $293 billion, less than the $801 billion spent by the United States, but an increase of 72 percent over its spending a decade ago.
That trend line will continue to breed anxiety not just in Washington, but also 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 a side.
Edward Wong reported from Phnom Penh, and Damien Cave from Sydney, Australia. Ben Dooley contributed reporting from Tokyo.
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