US makes Asia inroads by playing down need to oppose China

US makes Asia inroads by playing down need to oppose China

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reviews an honour guard as he meets with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha during his official visit to Thailand, in Bangkok, on Monday. (Reuters photo)
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reviews an honour guard as he meets with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha during his official visit to Thailand, in Bangkok, on Monday. (Reuters photo)

The US sought to bolster its support in Asia this weekend by reassuring nations they don’t need to join a coalition against China, drawing a stark contrast with Beijing’s threats to defend its interests with military force.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Asia’s biggest security forum Saturday that the US was taking “wise counsel” from smaller countries, saying they should be “free to choose, free to prosper and free to chart their own course.” 

It represented a break from the Trump administration pressing nations to take sides on the use of 5G equipment from Huawei, one of China’s most strategically important companies, a position that rankled many at the last gathering of defence officials in 2019. And it was a marked difference from China, whose defense minister, Wei Fenghe, vowed this time around to “fight to the very end” against any powers that wanted confrontation.

The two defence chiefs laid out their competing visions for Asian security with duelling speeches at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where hundreds of officials gathered this weekend for the first time since the pandemic. While the US attempted to seize on the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to push back against a more assertive China, Beijing tried to cast Washington as the main destabilising force behind conflicts from Eastern Europe to the Western Pacific.  

“Both appealed to the countries in the Global South in particular,” said Reinhard Buetikofer, a European lawmaker who sits on the body’s Foreign Affairs Committee, who attended the conference. “But here they sang different tunes: Austin signalled that countries did not have to choose between either the US or China, while Wei implied that the world would only have one choice -- China.”

Most Asian nations, with a history of being carved up by colonial powers, would prefer to not take sides and let both camps court their support. Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto said all powers “need to have their space, their rights respected,” while Fijian national security chief Inia Batikoto Seruiratu said the people of his small island nation “see benefit from all these relationships that we have, including China.”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations “will take comfort that both have said, ‘There is no need to choose. We don’t want you to choose,’” Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said. “But whether that’s the reality, I think only the facts will speak for themselves.”

The Biden administration is trying overcome skepticism about the US’s commitment to the region after former President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark Pacific trade pact in 2017 and ramped up criticism of allies. Despite vowing to prioritise Asia after taking office last year, President Joe Biden has only recently begun to outline his China policy and the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework” intended to balance America’s military moves in Asia. 

The region was at the “heart of American grand strategy,” Austin said in his speech.

US Representative Ami Bera, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Asia subcommittee, praised Austin’s message. “There is a balancing act we must strike of demonstrating a firm stance against Beijing’s provocations, while presenting an affirmative vision for the region that does not force partners to choose,” said Bera, a California Democrat. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended debate at the annual forum at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, which was in past years often preoccupied by discussions about China’s efforts to assert control over the South China Sea. Instead, the US and its allies sought to cast Ukraine as a warning of what could happen in Asian flash points like Taiwan, if expansionist powers were left unchecked. 

Austin called Ukraine a “preview of a possible world of chaos and turmoil that none of us would want to live in,” while Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who addressed the gathering by video Saturday, said the “future rules of this world are being decided” on his country’s battlefields.

The focus on Ukraine put a spotlight on the geopolitical intentions of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who declared a “no limits” partnership with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the run-up to the invasion and has since defended Moscow’s rationale for launching the war. Wei repeated Beijing’s support for those arguments and reaffirmed China’s own territorial claims.

Wei’s speech was received with pointed questions about China’s territorial disputes from delegates from neighbouring countries such as India and Vietnam. Although Wei professed “good relations” with both neighbours, he suggested their claims in past disputes were unfounded.

Chinese officials have repeatedly asserted during recent meetings with US counterparts that the Taiwan Strait isn’t international waters, Bloomberg News reported Sunday, citing a person familiar with the situation. Wei didn’t explicitly refer to the legal status of the strategic waterway in public remarks over the weekend.

“There is certainly skepticism about Beijing’s intentions in Southeast Asia, though this is not always voiced in the region,” said Lynn Kuok, a senior IISS fellow for Asia-Pacific security. “What struck me about General Wei’s speech was that several lines could have been taken out of a US speech -- the importance of multilateralism, upholding the rule of law. The problem is often less what China says, but what China does in the region.”

Quad actions 

The US has leveraged the newly expanded Quad Group, which includes Japan, Australia and India, to shore up support across the region and troubleshoot burgeoning problems. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong promised Pacific Islands nations that aid won’t come with strings attached as China pushed, and then failed, to get 10 countries to ink a sweeping trade and security deal. 

India has pushed the International Monetary Fund to expedite bailout funds to Sri Lanka, while China has been more hesitant to give fresh credit to ease its financial crisis. Kishida used the Shangri-La meeting to lay out an expanded security role in Asia that includes providing equipment, including patrol vessels, and training for maritime security personnel in at least 20 countries.

The Quad has also announced a program aimed at curbing illegal fishing in the Pacific, a concern aimed primarily at China’s fishing fleet. Yet, with the flurry of activity on alliances and agreements, the US has been keen for measures to keep future crises from escalating into conflict. 

“The competition is inevitable, but Washington must approach it carefully, making clear the US is not forcing countries to make a choice between Washington or Beijing but rather ensuring Indo-Pacific nations continue to have choices and to maintain their sovereignty and independence,” said Lisa Curtis, director of CNAS’s Indo-Pacific security program and a former National Security Council senior director for South and Central Asia. 

Aside from Austin who is also visiting Thailand, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, US Special Envoy to North Korea Sung Kim and State Department Counselor Derek Chollet are in Asia this month. The flurry of trips come after Biden’s visit to South Korea and Japan last month, when he unveiled the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF, and left China out.  

“A certain level of rivalry benefits Southeast Asian countries,” said Shahriman Lockman, a director at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia. “We’d hardly have IPEF -- imperfect as it may be -- if the US didn’t feel the need to compete with China.”

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