Are the United States and China tiptoeing towards an Indo-Pacific Cold War? | Asia | An in-depth look at current events from across the continent | DW


The new security partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, dubbed “AUKUS”, has made waves from Asia to Europe. Beijing called the partnership “highly irresponsible” and indicative of a Cold War-style “arms race”.

Washington’s European allies received AUKUS as a surprise and a snub. France was particularly furious, as the deal meant the cancellation of a multibillion-dollar diesel-electric submarine deal with Australia in favor of US nuclear-powered ships.

The UKUS countries hailed the pact as an “effort” to “maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” an area designed to stretch from India to Australia, and ostensibly the scene of a geopolitical confrontation between the United States and China.

As the Sino-U.S. Rivalry continues to take shape, Washington with AUKUS appears to have taken one of the biggest steps in recent history towards an alliance-building strategy to balance China’s growing military capability.

Quad: From “sea foam” to “Pacific NATO”

President Xi Jinping’s ambitious geopolitical plans for China are also behind the dusting off of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), which is holding its first in-person summit of leaders since its launch by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2017.

US President Joe Biden welcomes the leaders of India, Japan and Australia to Washington on Friday, focusing on what the White House has called the “priority to engage in the Indo-Pacific.”

After calling the Quad a mere “sea foam” in 2017, in October 2020, China compared the grouping to a “Pacific NATO” promoting a “cold war mentality to stir up confrontation.”

Similar rhetoric has been employed again by Beijing, this time in response to the AUKUS announcement, although the idea of ​​Australia-based nuclear submarines is likely to cause Beijing more dismay than lofty statements. following a security dialogue.

US President Joe Biden welcomes the leaders of India, Japan and Australia to Washington on Friday after the virtual Quad meeting was held in March 2021.

“I think Beijing is more likely to be very concerned about AUKUS, especially since this new setup also includes an element of robust military technology,” said Collin Koh, strategic analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. (RSIS) in Singapore. .

“AUKUS is made up of close allies, and the chance that it will become the basis of some sort of future ‘Indo-Pacific NATO’ is more plausible to imagine than the Quad,” he told DW.

Biden’s friend downstairs

At the heart of UKUS is the United States’ commitment to share its ultra-sensitive nuclear submarine propulsion technology, enabling Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines on “earliest possible date.” “.

This is a major step. For only the second time, the United States has shared nuclear technology with an ally, the first time with the United Kingdom in 1958.

Joe Biden on a podium and Scott Morrison on television

Biden and Morrison welcomed deepening of ties after AUKUS announcement

The AUKUS deal comes amid months of deteriorating bilateral and trade relations between China and Australia.

Richard Maude, senior researcher at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Australia, told DW that Australia’s growing strategic ties with the United States have deeper roots – a close and long-standing alliance and a shared concern regarding China’s growing power, nationalism, and assertive foreign policy.

“The cooperation to help balance the power of China serves the interests of both countries and has been intensifying for several years,” he said, adding, “Canberra policymakers see the alliance as more relevant and more important than ever – vital protection against Chinese aggression. “

Australia’s bonding so closely to a US-led security agenda sparked debate in Canberra over the diplomatic cost of increasing deterrence against China.

“The United States is by far the only plausible counterweight against China given its economic, military and diplomatic clout,” Koh said. “Despite concerns about US unilateralism and strategic reliability, are there better alternatives for countries like Australia? ” he added.

President Biden underlined the depth of the new partnership ahead of a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, saying the United States has “no closer or more reliable ally than Australia “.

China denounces ‘cold war’ mentality

Although nowhere in the AKUS or the Quad press releases against China explicitly mentioned, Beijing is clearly the elephant in the room.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called the partnership “seriously damaging to regional peace.”

Lijian warned the group that he should “abandon the obsolete zero-sum Cold War mentality and narrow geopolitical concepts”, or risk “harming their own interests.”

Pugnacious English-language editorial published in Communist Party-backed newspaper this week World time went even further, warning that “Australian troops are also very likely to be the first group of Western soldiers to lose their lives in the South China Sea”, in the event of conflict with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) .

Putting the American-Chinese rivalry on ice

However, dialogue forums like the Quad are far from having a NATO-style mutual defense assurance. And the submarines promised to Australia under UKUS are unlikely to be operational until the 2030s.

Sailors on a new Chinese guided missile destroyer

China produced warships like this guided missile destroyer to compete with the US Navy

Officially, neither side is openly showing signs of outright hostility. At the opening of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Biden said the United States “is not looking for a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocs.”

President Xi asserted that “China has never, and never will invade, intimidate others or seek hegemony.”

Charles Dunst, a partner at US-based political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told DW that the US and its allies will strive to avoid war with China, while “continuing to strive like AUKUS to counter Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior in the Indo-Pacific. “

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned last week that the “completely dysfunctional” China-US relationship risked a “cold war” that would likely be “more dangerous and more difficult to manage” than the original.

The Indo-Pacific’s most dangerous potential flashpoint remains Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade Chinese province. The reunification of the island with the mainland has become a central interest of the Communist Party in Beijing.

While officials in the Biden administration have reiterated that the United States will help Taiwan defend itself, in recent months the PLA has stepped up its military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait.

In July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the United States of “trying to take risks on the Taiwan issue”, calling recent high-level meetings between officials “extremely false and dangerous”.

“Achieving the full reunification of China is a historic trend and no one person or force can stop it,” Wang said.

“China could probably get away with aggressive action against some small Taiwanese islands, and possibly the South China Sea as well, but any serious Chinese invasion of Taiwan would almost certainly result in US involvement,” the said. analyst Dunst.

“The ‘red line’ for US involvement in an Indo-Pacific war would be a Chinese military campaign against Taiwan,” he added, although that would be a big line to cross.

“China, too, always prefers lower level action to all-out war, although that may change as China’s capabilities improve and Xi Jinping becomes more impatient,” he said. .

The economy before submarines

However, for now, China’s primary strategy in the Indo-Pacific remains to leverage economic pressure to draw countries into its orbit, rather than directly competing with US-led security guarantees. promising a free and open region.

“China offers aid and investment to countries in the region, especially in Southeast Asia, unlike the United States,” Dunst said.

“Without a US economic plan for the Indo-Pacific, China’s efforts on this front will continue to be successful,” he added.

“Most of the Indo-Pacific countries prefer to balance the United States and China – to cooperate with both and derive economic benefits from them – but some have aligned with the United States for fear of Chinese aggression. Australia and India are prime examples, ”he continued.

Maude said China’s leaders believe the tide of history is going in their direction.

“Especially in the run-up to the very important Party Congress next year, China has little incentive to cooperate with the United States or to compromise on issues that preoccupy Washington,” he said. .

“The challenge for Washington is to convince China that its aggressive turn in recent years will meet with sustained resistance and that the costs to China of its current price will be high. Partnerships like AUKUS and Quad are at the heart of these. efforts.”


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