PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Just hours after five Chinese missiles were blasted into Japanese waters off Taiwan, the foreign ministers of China and Japan found themselves uncomfortably close in the waiting room for a Thursday night gala dinner at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, greeted reporters before entering the room, stayed for three minutes, then walked to his motorcade. He had already canceled plans for a bilateral meeting with his Japanese counterpart in the Cambodian capital after Japan signed a statement from the Group of 7 countries expressing concern about Beijing’s “imminent actions”. But the prospect of even a casual exchange would 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 unstable and dangerous environment that has emerged since this week’s visit to Taiwan by Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
Retaliatory drills by the Chinese military continued 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 as they looked for ways to de-escalate. Because both superpowers claimed their efforts with Taiwan were reasonable and justified, the conflict pointed to the increasing risks of a larger conflict, potentially involving more countries and locations at sea and in the air.
The United States plans to heavily arm Taiwan, give Australia technology to propel nuclear submarines, and possibly base more missiles across the region, as many analysts and officials worry that China’s growing military prowess may make the craft more general. and make it more varied. Displays like this week’s give a glimpse of how far Beijing is willing to go in an area of the world of enormous economic importance that is becoming more militarized and increasingly confronted with deadly weapons.
“We are entering a period when China is more capable and more likely to use force to protect its interests, especially those it sees as core and non-negotiable like Taiwan,” said Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. At the same time, Beijing has been signaling to Taiwan, Japan and others, she added, that it is more willing to escalate against US allies than against the United States itself.
If the ultimate goal is to sideline the United States in Asia, as many believe, China seems to think it would be more productive to scare or lure other countries away from American ties than a direct challenge. Even before Mrs. 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 across the nose and releasing a bundle of chaff into the engine of the Australian jet fighter. US and Australian defense officials called the altercation an extremely dangerous maneuver.
That same month, China and Russia conducted joint exercises over the seas in northeast Asia as President Biden visited the region, and Chinese jets buzzed Canadian planes deployed to Japan, forcing pilots to maneuver to avoid a collision.
The actions around Taiwan continue: with Chinese missiles fired for the first time into the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and with missiles fired over Taiwanese airspace. Together, the muscular movements are carrying out what many in the region see as a two-pronged message from China’s leaders: You are vulnerable and China will not be deterred by the United States.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken tried to refute that argument Friday in a speech to Southeast Asian colleagues in Cambodia.
According to a Western official present, Mr. Blinken, speaking after Mr. Wang from China, for the group that Beijing had wanted to intimidate not only Taiwan, but also its neighbors. He called the Chinese government’s response to a peaceful visit by Ms Pelosi blatantly provocative, referring to Chinese missiles landing near Japan and asking, “How would you feel if this happened to you?”
At a press conference in the afternoon, Mr. Blinken: “We will remain loyal to our allies and partners, working with and through regional organizations to empower friends in the region to make their own decisions without coercion.”
There is some evidence of that. Senior US officials have been to Asia more than once this year, working out the details of extensive partnerships such as the security pact called AUKUS with Australia and Britain, and announcing that new embassies will be opened in several countries in the Pacific.
But doubts about American resolve remain commonplace in Asia. A backlash against free trade among many US voters has made both Republican and Democratic leaders reluctant to push for ambitious trade deals in the region, despite pleas from Asian countries. That is a blatant omission as China’s economic clout grows.
Some analysts in Washington say recent US administrations have “over-militarized” the China issue because they lack bold economic plans.
Others see stagnation and lack of creativity 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, the US military structure in the region has remained essentially unchanged since the end of the Cold War.
“The entire security order in Asia was destroyed during that time, and yet the US military presence is unchanged,” he said. “Given everything that has happened, their friends and allies in the region are quite concerned about the eroding credibility of the US deterrent.”
The apparent ambivalence in Washington over Ms. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan — with top White House security advisers suggesting she stay away from Taipei this month — only seemed to confirm that even the United States is unsure of its position. And after four years of President Donald J. Trump, the possibility of a new US president withdrawing from Asia is never far from the region’s leaders.
They know what China wants: to rule Taiwan and keep other countries out of Beijing’s internal affairs. And for many countries in Southeast Asia, that seems easier to accommodate than what the United States is likely to ask, such as stationing troops, gaining access to the navy, or basing long-range missiles on its territory.
“The #1 consideration is how to respond to China and how close to the United States,” said Oriana Skyler Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies who focuses on Chinese security policy. “They don’t want to lean too forward and find themselves walking too far forward.”
Indonesia, which is expected to have the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030, is a country that could play a bigger role in shaping regional relations, but it has not yet shown much interest in getting out of its unaligned position. to step.
Vietnam is a persistent conundrum for Americans: U.S. officials understand its long history of hostility to China, exacerbated by ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, so it could be a natural partner. But the ruling Communist Party maintains close ties with its Beijing counterpart, and some US officials say they realize Vietnamese leaders want to step over the fence with both superpowers.
Cambodia presents another dilemma. China’s economic influence is being felt across the country, and Cambodian leaders recently agreed to expand and upgrade a naval base in China, alarming Washington.
“There’s a combination of what the United States is going to do, what’s the United States’ policy 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 at the American Enterprise Institute. “And can they stay out of it?”
Many Asian countries seem to bet that a stronger military will help by increasing their deterrent capabilities. 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 gains weren’t enough for the Chinese dollar to match the dollar. Beijing increased its military spending 4.7 percent to $293 billion, less than the $801 billion spent by the United States, but a 72 percent increase from its spending a decade ago.
That trendline will spark fear not only 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 take sides.
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