(Bloomberg) – The United States sought to bolster its support in Asia over the weekend by reassuring nations that they did not need to join a coalition against China, setting a stark contrast to Beijing’s threats to to defend its interests by military force.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Asia’s largest security forum on Saturday that the United States is following the “wise advice” of small countries, saying it should be “free to choose, free to prosper and free to chart their own course.
It represented a break with the Trump administration urging nations to take sides over the use of 5G equipment from Huawei, one of China’s most strategically important companies, a stance that upset many at the latest rally. of defense officials in 2019. unlike China, whose defense minister, Wei Fenghe, has vowed this time to “fight to the end” against any powers that would want confrontation.
The two defense chiefs laid out their competing visions of Asian security with dueling speeches at the IISS Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, where hundreds of officials gathered over the weekend for the first time since the pandemic. As the United States tried to seize the shock of the war in Ukraine to fend off a more assertive China, Beijing tried to make Washington the main destabilizing force behind conflicts from Eastern Europe to the Western Pacific.
“Both have attracted countries from the South in particular,” said Reinhard Buetikofe, a European lawmaker who sits on the body’s foreign affairs committee, who attended the conference. “But here they sang different tunes: Austin signaled that countries didn’t have to choose between the United States or China, while Wei hinted that the world would have only one choice: China.”
Most Asian nations, with a history of carving up by colonial powers, would rather not take sides and let both sides court their support. Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto said all powers “must see their space, their rights respected”, while Fiji’s national security chief Inia Batikoto Seruiratu said his small island nation “sees the benefits of all these relationships that we have, including China”.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations “will be reassured that the two have said, ‘There is no need to choose. We don’t want you to choose,” Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said. “But let it be the reality, I think only the facts will speak for themselves.”
The Biden administration is trying to overcome skepticism about US engagement in the region after former President Donald Trump pulled out of a landmark Pacific trade pact in 2017 and intensified criticism from allies in the region. Despite promising to prioritize Asia after taking office last year, President Joe Biden has only recently begun outlining his China policy and the “Indo-Pacific economic framework” intended to balance US military movements in Asia.
The region was “at the heart of American grand strategy,” Austin said in his speech.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended the debate at the annual forum at Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel, which has often been preoccupied in recent years with discussions of China’s efforts to assert control over the South China Sea. Instead, the United States and its allies have sought to present Ukraine as a warning of what could happen in Asian hotspots like Taiwan, if expansionist powers go unchecked.
Austin called Ukraine “a glimpse into 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 d ‘today could be East Asia tomorrow’. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who addressed the rally via video on Saturday, said “the future rules of this world are being decided” on his country’s battlefields.
The focus on Ukraine has shed light on the geopolitical intentions of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who declared a “limitless” partnership with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the eve of the invasion and has since defended the justification for Moscow for the outbreak of war. Wei reiterated Beijing’s support for these arguments and reaffirmed China’s own territorial claims.
Wei’s speech was met with pointed questions about China’s territorial disputes from delegates from neighboring countries such as India and Vietnam. Although Wei professed “good relations” with the two neighbors, he suggested their claims in past disputes were unfounded.
“There is certainly skepticism about Beijing’s intentions in Southeast Asia, although this is not always expressed in the region,” said Lynn Kuok, IISS senior researcher for Asia-Pacific security. . “What struck me in General Wei’s speech was that several lines could have been taken out of an American speech – the importance of multilateralism, respect for the rule of law. The problem is often less what China is saying, but what China is doing in the region.
The United States has leveraged the recently expanded Quad group, which includes Japan, Australia and India, to build support in the region and address emerging issues. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has promised Pacific Island nations aid will not come with strings attached as China pushed, then failed, to get 10 countries to sign a trade and security deal radical.
India has pushed the International Monetary Fund to fast-track bailout funds to Sri Lanka, while China has been more hesitant to extend new credit to ease its financial crisis. Kishida used the Shangri-La meeting to define an expanded security role in Asia that includes providing equipment, including patrol boats, and training maritime security personnel in at least 20 countries.
The Quad also announced a program to tackle illegal fishing in the Pacific, a concern primarily targeting the Chinese fishing fleet. Yet with the flurry of activity over alliances and agreements, the United States has been keen to take steps to prevent future crises from escalating into conflict.
“Competition is inevitable, but Washington must approach it with caution, making it clear that the United States is not forcing countries to choose between Washington or Beijing, but rather ensuring that the nations of Indo- Pacific continue to have choices and maintain their sovereignty and independence,” said Lisa Curtis, CNAS Indo-Pacific Security Program Director and former National Security Council Senior Director for South and Central Asia.
Besides Austin, Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, US Special Envoy to North Korea Sung Kim and State Department Advisor Derek Chollet are in Asia this month. The flurry of travel comes after Biden visited 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, director of Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies. “We would hardly have the IPEF – flawed as it is – if the United States did not feel the need to compete with China.”
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