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

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Just a few hours after five Chinese missiles exploded in Japanese waters near Taiwan, the foreign ministers of China and Japan found themselves uncomfortably close to each other, in the waiting room for a Thursday night dinner at an assembly meeting. from Southeast Asian countries.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi greeted the reporters before entering the room, remaining three minutes and then leaving for his motorcade. He had already canceled plans to hold a bilateral meeting with his Japanese counterpart in the Cambodian capital after Japan signed a G7 statement expressing concern about Beijing’s “threatening measures.” But the possibility of an informal exchange was probably too much; Witnesses said Mr. Wang left and did not return.

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

The Chinese army’s retaliatory maneuvers continued on Friday around the democratic autonomous island, which China claims belongs to. US officials once again tried to show that they would not be intimidated by China, mobilizing other countries to denounce its actions, while looking for ways to de-escalate. With both superpowers saying their efforts regarding Taiwan were reasonable and justified, the conflict indicated an accelerating risk of a broader conflict, possibly involving more countries and locations at sea and in the air.

The United States intends to arm Taiwan extensively, give Australia technology to propel nuclear submarines and possibly base more missiles across the region, with many analysts and officials fearing that China’s growing military might will make brinkmanship more common and diverse. Shows like the one this week give a hint of how far Beijing wants to go in a region of the world of enormous economic importance that has become more militarized and is seeing more close calls for lethal weapons.

said Bonnie Lin, director of the China Energy Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. At the same time, Beijing made clear to Taiwan, Japan and other countries, she added, It is more prepared to escalate against the allies of the United States than it is to escalate against the United States itself.

If the ultimate goal is to push the United States to the margins in Asia, as many believe, China appears to believe that intimidating or luring other countries away from U.S. relations would be more productive than a direct challenge. Even before Pelosi’s visit, China had begun to push the boundaries of acceptable military behavior, especially with America’s allies.

In May, a Chinese aircraft intercepted an Australian naval reconnaissance flight in international airspace in the South China Sea, firing flares, cutting its nose, and shooting a beam of chaff into the Australian plane’s engine. US and Australian defense officials described the altercation as a very dangerous maneuver.

In the same month, China and Russia conducted joint exercises over the seas in Northeast Asia while President Biden was visiting the region, and Chinese aircraft flew over Canadian aircraft deployed in Japan, forcing pilots to perform collision avoidance maneuvers.

Actions around Taiwan go even further – by firing Chinese missiles into the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone for the first time, and launching missiles over Taiwan’s airspace. Together, the powerful moves carry what many in the region see as a two-pronged message from China’s leaders: You are in danger, and the United States will not deter China.

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

According to a Western official who attended, Mr. Blinken, speaking after Mr. Wang from China, assured the group that Beijing had sought to intimidate not only Taiwan, but also its neighbors. Describing the Chinese government’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s peaceful visit as blatantly provocative, he referred to Chinese missiles landing near Japan and asked, “How would you feel if this happened to you?”

“We will stick with our allies and partners, and we will work with and through regional organizations to enable friends in the region to make their own decisions without coercion,” Mr. Blinken said at an afternoon news conference.

There is some evidence for this. Senior US officials have been visiting Asia frequently this year, working out the details of expanded partnerships such as the AUKUS security agreement with Australia and Britain, and announcing the opening of new embassies in several Pacific island nations.

But doubts about American resolve remain common in Asia. The backlash against free trade among many American voters has left Republican and Democratic leaders alike reluctant to push for any ambitious trade deals in the region, despite pleas from Asian nations. This is a stark omission as China’s economic clout grows.

Some analysts in Washington say recent US administrations have been “more than militarizing” the China issue because they lack bold economic plans.

Others see stagnation and a lack of creativity in American diplomatic ideas and military adaptation. Sam Roggevin, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, noted that while China’s rise has accelerated, the US military structure in the region has remained fundamentally unchanged since the end of the Cold War.

He said that “the entire security system in Asia was overturned at that time, and yet the US military presence did not change.” Given all that has happened, their friends and allies in the region are very reasonably concerned about the erosion of the credibility of American deterrence.

The apparent inconsistency in Washington over Ms Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan – where top White House security advisers suggested she moved away from Taipei this month – only seems to confirm that even the US is not sure where it stands. Four years into President Donald J. Trump’s rule, the prospect of another US president withdrawing from Asia is not far from the minds of the region’s leaders.

They know what China wants: to rule Taiwan and to keep other countries away from what Beijing asserts as their internal affairs. For many countries in Southeast Asia, that seems easier to accommodate than the United States might ask, such as stationing forces, gaining naval access, or placing long-range missiles on their soil.

“The first consideration is how to respond to China and how close to the United States,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute who focuses on Chinese security policy. “They don’t want to lean too far and find themselves too far ahead.”

Indonesia, which is expected to have the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030, is one of the countries that could play a greater role in shaping regional relations, but it has not yet shown much interest in abandoning its non-aligned position.

Vietnam presents an ongoing dilemma for Americans: US officials understand its long history of hostility toward China, exacerbated by ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, so it can be a natural partner. But the ruling Communist Party maintains close ties with its counterpart in Beijing, and some US officials say they are aware that Vietnamese leaders want to break the fence with both superpowers.

Cambodia presents another predicament. China’s economic influence is felt throughout the country, and Cambodian leaders recently agreed to own China Expand and upgrade Naval base, alarming for Washington.

“There is a mixture of what the United States is going to do, what is the policy of the United States over time, what is Chinese power — there are all these things they are trying to assess,” said Ms. Mastro, who is also a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Can they stay out of it?”

Many Asian countries seem to bet that a stronger military will help by increasing their 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, according to the report. Research From the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Even combined, these increases were not enough to match the Chinese dollar against the dollar. Beijing increased its military spending by 4.7 percent, to $293 billion, less than the $801 billion the United States spent, but 72 percent more than it spent a decade ago.

This trend line will continue to cause concern not only in Washington, but also among America’s closest allies in the region, Australia, South Korea and Japan – and in many countries that have tried not to choose a side.

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

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