US, Allies Deepen Indo-Pacific Tensions09/23 06:08
BANGKOK (AP) -- With increasingly strong talk in support of Taiwan, a new
deal to supply Australia with nuclear submarines, and the launch of a European
strategy for greater engagement in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. and its allies
are becoming more assertive in their approach toward a rising China.
China has bristled at the moves, and the growing tensions between Beijing
and Washington prompted U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the weekend
to implore U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to repair
their "completely dysfunctional" relationship, warning they risk dividing the
As the U.N. General Assembly opened Tuesday, both leaders chose calming
language, with Biden insisting "we are not seeking a new Cold War or a world
divided into rigid blocs," and Xi telling the forum that "China has never, and
will never invade or bully others or seek hegemony."
But the underlying issues have not changed, with China building up its
military outposts as it presses its maritime claims over critical sea lanes,
and the U.S. and its allies growing louder in their support of Taiwan, which
China claims as part of its territory, and deepening military cooperation in
On Friday, Biden hosts the leaders of Japan, India and Australia for an
in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue for broad talks including the
COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, but also how to keep the Indo-Pacific, a
vast region spanning from India to Australia, "free and open," according to the
It comes a week after the dramatic announcement that Australia would be
dropping a contract for conventional French submarines in favor of an
Anglo-American offer for nuclear-powered vessels, a bombshell that overshadowed
the unveiling of the European Union's strategy to boost political and defense
ties in the Indo-Pacific.
"One thing is certain, that everyone is pivoting toward the Indo-Pacific,"
said Garima Mohan, an Asia program fellow with the German Marshall Fund think
As partners pursue moves that play to their own strengths and needs,
however, the past week has underscored the lack of coordination as a networked
security strategy develops, she said.
"Not everyone has the same threat assessment of China," she said in a
telephone interview from Berlin.
The EU policy emphasizes the need for dialogue with Beijing, to encourage
"China to play its part in a peaceful and thriving Indo-Pacific region," while
at the same time proposing an "enhanced naval presence" and expanded security
cooperation with regional partners.
It also notes China's increased military buildup, and that "the display of
force and increasing tensions in regional hotspots such as in the South and
East China Sea, and in the Taiwan Strait, may have a direct impact on European
security and prosperity."
Germany, which has close economic ties to China, got a wake-up call last
week when China rejected its request for a port call for the frigate Bavaria,
which is currently conducting maneuvers in the Indo-Pacific.
"China is telling them this inclusive approach is not going to work, so in a
way it's a rude awakening for Berlin," Mohan said. "You have to take a
position, you can't have your cake and eat it too, and if you have an
Indo-Pacific strategy ... you can't make it neutral."
Other EU countries, most notably France, have also sent naval assets for
exercises in the Indo-Pacific, and Britain has had a whole carrier strike group
conducting exercises for several months as London pursues the new tilt toward
the region recommended by a recent British government review of defense and
China's Foreign Ministry said after rejecting the Bavaria's port call that
it remained "willing to carry out friendly exchanges with Germany on the basis
of mutual respect and mutual trust," but made clear it was displeased with the
increased naval presence in the region.
"Individual powers... have repeatedly dispatched military aircraft and
warships to the South China Sea for some time in the name of exercising freedom
of navigation to flex muscle, stir up trouble and deliberately provoke
conflicts on maritime issues," spokesman Zhao Lijian said. "China's
determination to safeguard national and territorial sovereignty and maritime
rights and interests is unwavering, and will continue to properly handle
differences with the countries concerned through consultations and
Beijing was less reserved in its reaction to the submarine deal with
Australia, under which the U.S. and Britain will help Canberra construct
nuclear-powered submarines, calling it "highly irresponsible" and saying it
would "seriously damage regional peace and stability."
In signing the pact with the U.S. and Britain, Australia canceled a $66
billion deal with France for diesel-powered submarines, infuriating Paris,
which recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra and suggested it
calls into question the entire cooperative effort to blunt China's growing
While clearly irked by the surprise deal, many observers have suggested that
the vociferous reaction from France may be more directed toward a domestic
audience, where President Emmanuel Macron faces a reelection bid early next
But there was clear disappointment that the U.S. seemed to be ignoring
France's own engagement in the region by not informing them in advance, said
Laurence Nardon, an expert at the French Institute for International Relations.
"There was a way to do this while keeping Europeans in the loop," she said.
"The Indo-Pacific is important for the EU too; it's not one or the other."
In a call with Macron late Wednesday, Biden reaffirmed "the strategic
importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region,"
according to a joint statement.
More than just a decision to pursue nuclear submarines, the deal was a clear
signal of Australia committing long term to being in the U.S. camp on China
policy, said Euan Graham, an expert with the International Institute for
Strategic Studies in Singapore.
"The submarine decision represents an emphatic doubling down on the
Australia-U.S. alliance by both countries," he said in an analysis of the deal.
As the pact was introduced, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison alluded
to the long-term nature, saying "at its heart, today's announcements are about
the oldest of friendships, the strongest of values and the deepest of
The submarine deal seems likely to exacerbate the ongoing trade war between
China and Australia, and Australia is hoping to strike a free trade deal with
Quad partner India to help offset the economic impact.
While the European strategy outline will take time, the plan provides
clarity in how the EU is prepared to work with the U.S. and its allies in the
region -- something that has been lacking in the past.
"There's a lack of understanding on the U.S. side of why Europe is
interested in the Indo-Pacific and exactly what kind of role it wants to play,"
Mohan said in a podcast on the issue. "There's also a lack of understanding of
the U.S. approach."
In the outline of the strategy, the EU broadly looks to pool its resources
for greater effect, and to work more closely with the Quad countries, the
10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and others.
It also envisions enhancing current operations, such as the Atalanta
anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa and in the western Indian Ocean, and
the expansion of the EU maritime security and safety mission in the wider
Indian Ocean area, which has already been broadened to Southeast Asia.
"The European assessment is very realistic about what they can and cannot do
in the region," Mohan said. "It's about making sure the resources, the
spending, that's done right and has an impact."