Associate Fellow for the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS Carisa Nietsche has recently written that the US should not “force” Europe to “choose” between Washington or Beijing because such coercive diplomacy in fact risks injecting “friction” and eroding trust in transatlantic relations. This is good advice for American foreign policy makers and one could argue the same applies in regards to the American partners in Asia.
Tensions remain on the rise in the Pacific, as China sent a squadron of its Navy ships to sail through straits near Japan, as a response to the latter’s new national security strategy and security moves (hailed by the US). Admiral John Aquilino, Commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, has stated during a PBS interview this week that we currently live, from an American perspective, in “the most dangerous time” he’s seen “in 38 years.” When reading such statements from American top officials, one should always keep in mind that Washington’s new aggressive stance on Taiwan and its new foreign policy on the matter is what has dangerously brought the world closer to another war, as such a conflict could even spiral out of control across the Himalayas. US President Joe Biden’s administration has been pushing for a new “Asian NATO” and also escalating tensions in the Korean peninsula, for example.
Analysts Kate Alexander and Colleen Moore, writing for the Diplomat, remarks that the increasingly militarized American anti-Chinese policies for the Indo-Pacific have been undermining security there. However, besides the militarization element, as part of the new cold war, there is also an economic warfare angle, as exemplified by the American so-called “chip war” against China – which ironically hurts Washington’s own allies such as Taiwan, while the specter of recession haunts the Asia-Pacific region. Its markets have traded lower, which has caused much concern: for example, the Kospi in South Korea has fallen 0.04% to 2,360.02.
Such “collateral damage” and “friendly fire” is typical of the US behavior, as anyone can see, in a more extreme instance of it, in the ongoing subsidy war, which, according to French President Emmanuel Macron, could even divide the West.
In any case, the new cold war is the context for most of the latest US initiatives in Asia. For example, in July, during the Pacific Islands Forum, Washington announced a set of initiatives to deepen its partnership with the island nations of the Pacific. Similarly, the American engagement with Nepal and other nations, as I’ve written, is part of an Indo-Pacific Region (IPR) wider vision to counter China. In the same way, New Zealand has been facing pressures to align with AUKUS. Such US endeavors have been framed by a cold war mentality, as exemplified by the very manner it reacted to the recent China-Solomon Islands security deal (even threatening invasion).
Regarding the aforementioned Pacific Island commitments made by the US, most of them are basically aid programs (not investments), as writes Bonnie Girard (President of China Channel Ltd.). In contrast, China offers investment and trade opportunities. The final America commitment for the Pacific Island nations includes them into the American Indo-Pacific strategy. These nations, according to Georgetown University’s History Professor Patricia O’Brien, so far have often resisted even Beijing’s endeavors to create a China-Pacific islands bloc and the Pacific has been reconfiguring itself in ways that do not necessarily mirror what the Chinese desired. The Asian nations in general might have a say in the future of the IPR – and this is something both China and the US need to keep in mind – particularly the latter.
University of Notre Dame researcher Isheika Cleare, writing for Foreign Policy, points out that Pacific countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and others desire to continue enjoying trade with Beijing while “receiving security protection, explicit or otherwise, and regional balance from the United States” as part of their strategy to maintain neutrality and thus to avoid “alienating either power”. Therefore, Washington places itself in a hard position as it pressures its partners and potential allies to cease trading with China, something which jeopardizes regional economic stability and growth.
The United States have been described as an overextended and overburdened superpower (by Carnegie historian Stephen Wertheim), and aforementioned professor Isheika Cleare has described it as also an “perennially distracted superpower” (in many Asian countries’ perspective).
The US has been providing essential support to Ukraine in its current conflict with Russia and is also engaged in a new cold war with China (Taiwan now being a focal point for tensions). Trying to simultaneously contain and encircle two superpowers at once can hardly be described as a wise strategy or one that is feasible in the long run – that being so, Wertheim argues that Washington should exercise restraint in Taiwan and elsewhere.
The American superpower typically expects “absolute allies”, but the emerging polycentric world in fact makes room for diversified bilateral relations – not only in the broader Indo-Pacific area, but actually globally, as one can already see in Africa, for example. The BRICS grouping recent consensus on expansion (Brics +) is in itself yet another instance of this tendency of states employing such forums to coordinate their perspectives while maximizing benefits for all parties involved – bilateral disputes apart.
Regional powers such as India and Indonesia may have their own visions of the IPR, and, likewise, other regional actors there too might be way more interested in diversifying their partners while balancing relations (by seeking non-alignment and multi-alignment) than in joining a new cold war. Therefore, the US aggressive approach in Asia may in fact backfire, thereby alienating its partners and potential partners.