US and China should continue talks
The United States last Wednesday took a major step in challenging China's massive influence in Asia by announcing a plan to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines that could eventually make their way into contested waters claimed by Beijing.
The new three-way partnership involving the US, the UK and Australia -- known as AUKUS -- is seen as helping expand the Western presence in the region and specifically addressing the growing challenges Australia has been facing from China.
Under the plan, Australia may begin conducting routine patrols that could move through areas of the South China Sea that China claims -- over the objections of four Southeast Asian states -- and range as far north as Taiwan. The announcement, made in a virtual meeting by US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, is highly significant for Canberra, which in recent years has been hesitant to push back directly at core Chinese interests.
Three years ago, Australia was among the first countries to ban Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, from its networks over US allegations that link the company to spying for Beijing, something Huawei denies. With the prospect of deploying a new submarine fleet, Australia would become a far more muscular player in the US-led alliance in the Pacific.
For Mr Johnson, the new defence arrangement would give a boost to his "Global Britain" strategy that focuses on the Pacific now that his country has left the European Union.
The enhanced Indo-Pacific security partnership is the latest manifestation of a strategy developed by Mr Biden and his advisers to push back against Chinese expansion. In recent months they have urged nations to reject Huawei, edged toward closer dealings with Taiwan, and denounced China's crackdown on Hong Kong.
To counter China's aggressive tactics and ensure security for Taiwan, it required the US to empower key allies in the region, in this case Australia.
Both Mr Biden and Mr Morrison stressed the submarines Australia acquires would not be armed with nuclear weapons. Yet even conventionally armed submarines, manned by Australian sailors, could alter the naval balance of power in the Pacific.
Some strategists view the alliance as a momentous shift that says a lot about how worrisome China's behaviour in the region has become.
"This just further deepens the sense that we do have a new Cold War in Asia and that Australia is betting that in that new Cold War, the US is going to emerge victorious," said Hugh White, a professor at Australian National University and a former defence official.
US officials have pointed out that the new pact also focuses on other measures, such as cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, and isn't targeting China or any other specific country. Beijing is not convinced -- the Chinese embassy in Washington said the trio should "shake off their Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice".
Washington's intentions might become clearer this week when Mr Biden hosts the leaders of Japan, India and Australia in Washington for the first in-person meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Alliance. Dormant for years, the Quad has emerged as a new forum for addressing Indo-Pacific challenges.
Mr Biden will also host a virtual Summit for Democracy in December with heads of state, civil society, philanthropy and business. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not rule out inviting Taiwan. If Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen takes part in any way, it would be a serious blow to US-China relations.
So, I was not surprised to hear that President Xi Jinping did not take up an offer from Mr Biden for a face-to-face summit. In their 90-minute phone call on Sept 10, the Chinese leader instead insisted that Washington adopt a less strident tone, saying US policies had caused "serious difficulties".
The White House says it intends to keep channels of communication open, and a meeting between the two leaders on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Italy in October is a possibility. But whether it's face-to-face or virtual meetings or phone calls, maintaining frank dialogue is welcomed because it is key to avoiding inadvertent incidents.
If the two superpowers remain locked in all-out confrontation, the impact on the global economy will be immeasurable. The world should embrace any steps taken by the US and China to ease tensions, even if in limited areas, and encourage efforts to move the relationship forward.
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor