US seeks reassurance from Asian allies as Chinese military grows bolder

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Just hours after five Chinese missiles were launched into Japanese waters near Taiwan, the foreign ministers of China and Japan found themselves uncomfortably close to each other, in the waiting room for a gala dinner on Thursday evening during an Association meeting. nations of Southeast Asia.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi greeted reporters before entering the room, stayed for three minutes, and then walked towards 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 that Mr. Wang left and did not return.

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

Chinese military retaliatory exercises continued on Friday around the self-governing democratic island, which China claims as its own. US officials again tried to show they would not be intimidated by China, rallying other nations to denounce its actions, while seeking ways to defuse. With both major powers arguing that their efforts involving Taiwan were reasonable and justified, the conflict underscored the accelerating risks of a wider conflict, possibly involving more countries and locations at sea and in the air.

The United States intends to heavily arm Taiwan, give Australia nuclear submarine propulsion technology and possibly base more missiles in the region, as many analysts and officials fear the power China’s growing military only makes the tightrope strategy more common and more varied. Displays like this week’s give an idea of ​​how far Beijing is willing to go in a region of the world of enormous economic importance that is becoming increasingly militarized and seeing closer calls with deadly weapons.

“We are entering a period when China is more capable and likely to use force to protect its interests, especially interests it considers fundamental and non-negotiable like Taiwan,” said Bonny Lin, director of China Power. Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. At the same time, Beijing has signaled to Taiwan, Japan and others, she added, that he is more willing to escalate against US allies than against the United States itself.

If the end goal is to sideline the United States in Asia, as many believe, China seems to think that scaring or distracting other countries 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 May, Chinese planes intercepted an Australian maritime surveillance flight in international airspace in the South China Sea, firing flares, cutting off its nose and releasing a pile of chaff into the engine of the Australian plane. . US and Australian defense officials called the altercation an extremely dangerous maneuver.

In the same month, China and Russia conducted joint exercises over Northeast Asian seas as President Biden visited the region, and Chinese jets buzzed Canadian planes deployed in Japan. , forcing pilots to perform 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 airspace. Together, the muscle movements carry what many in the region see as a two-pronged message from Chinese leaders: You are vulnerable, and China will not be deterred by the United States.

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

According to a Western official present, Mr. Blinken, speaking after Mr. Wang of China, stressed for 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 a blatant provocation, he referred to Chinese missiles landing near Japan and asked, “How would you feel if that happened to you?”

At an afternoon press conference, Mr Blinken said: “We will stand with our allies and partners, and work with and through regional organizations to enable friends in the region to take their own decisions without coercion”.

There is evidence of this. Senior US officials have visited Asia more frequently this year, working out details of expanded partnerships like the security pact called AUKUS with Australia and Britain, and announcing that new embassies would be opened in several of the island nations of the Peaceful.

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

Some analysts in Washington say recent US administrations have “over-weaponized” the China issue because they lack bold economic plans.

Others see stagnation and a lack of creativity with US 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, the US military structure in the region remains essentially unchanged since the end of the war. cold War.

“The entire security order in Asia was overthrown during this period, and yet the American military presence is unchanged,” he said. “Given everything that’s happened, their friends and allies in the region are quite reasonably concerned about the erosion of the credibility of American deterrence.”

The apparent ambivalence in Washington over Ms Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan – with top White House security advisers suggesting she avoid Taipei this month – has only confirmed that even the United States will not are unsure of their position. And after four years of President Donald J. Trump, the possibility of another American president withdrawing from Asia is never far from the minds of the region’s leaders.

They know what China wants: to rule Taiwan and keep other countries out of what Beijing says is its internal affairs. And for many Southeast Asian countries, that seems easier to manage than what the United States is likely to ask, 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 far to get to the United States,” said Oriana Skyler Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, which focuses on Chinese security policy. “They don’t want to lean too far forward and end up too far ahead.”

Indonesia, which is expected to have the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2030, is one country that could play a bigger role in shaping regional relations, but it has yet to show much interest in stepping out of its no-holds-barred position. aligned.

Vietnam is a lingering enigma for Americans: US officials understand its long history of animosity toward China, exacerbated by continued territorial disputes in the South China Sea, so it could be a natural partner. But his ruling Communist Party has close ties with its counterpart in Beijing, and some US officials say they realize Vietnamese leaders want to straddle the fence with the two superpowers.

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

“There’s a combination of what the US is going to do, what US policy is over time, and what Chinese power looks like – there’s all these things they’re trying to weigh,” said Ms. Mastro, who is also a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. “And can they stay out of it?”

Many Asian countries seem to be betting that a stronger military will help them by increasing their powers of deterrence. Japan increased its military budget by 7.3% last year, Singapore by 7.1%, South Korea by 4.7% and Australia by 4%, according to a study by the International Institute of Stockholm Peace Research.

Even combined, these increases were not enough 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 its spending a decade ago. year.

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

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