September 30, 2022

The Biden administration has spent months building an economic and diplomatic strategy in Asia to counter China, strengthening its alliances and assuring friendly countries that the United States is in the region for the long term.

The president sent top military officials to seal new partnerships and paid attention to a tiny nation in the Pacific, the Solomon Islands. He has launched a plan to arm Australia with nuclear submarines and launched a regional economic pact. He visited South Korea and Japan in May, and for the first time invited the two countries to a NATO meeting, to reinforce that Asia has not been forgotten as the war rages in Ukraine.

A visit to Taiwan by Speaker Nancy Pelosi now threatens to undermine the White House’s push, leaving allies wondering what damage has been done to the president’s united front in Asia.

The fear is that the trip, which will also include stops this week in South Korea and Japan, is an unnecessary provocation that distracts from the allies’ efforts to counter China’s military power and economic influence.

While US allies have remained largely mum on the visit so far, there is a sense among America’s friends that they were left to watch as China threatened the United States and Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its own. her.

The handling of Ms. Pelosi’s visit was troubling because, intentionally or not, it showed China’s power and diminished the role of allies, said Seong-Hyon Lee, South Korea fellow at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.

“The very fact that China’s potential response is becoming a heated debate in Washington reveals the rise of China’s position,” Mr Li said. “Washington’s hesitation has already been widely read in the region. This is very poor signaling diplomacy coming from Washington to its allies and partners in the region.”

Despite its short-term economic issues, Beijing is deeply invested, financially and diplomatically, in long-term plans to dominate the region.

China continues to tell its Asian neighbors that it is their natural partner because of geographic location and cultural commonality. He tries to convince them that the United States is a distant and declining power, with a broken political system, that is expected to lose its influence in Asia.

The Chinese Navy has steadily increased its patrols and military exercises in the South China Sea, sending more sophisticated ships. Its warplanes have harassed warplanes of US allies in recent months. In May, Australia complained that a Chinese fighter jet dangerously intercepted one of its surveillance aircraft.

Given China’s economic and military power, allies want consultation with Washington, which Ms. Pelosi’s foray into Taiwan didn’t seem to get.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong suggested as much on Wednesday when she called on all sides, not just China, to back down.

“All parties should consider how best to contribute to the de-escalation of the current tension, and we all want peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Ms Wong said.

Mr. Biden’s assurances about Asia in recent months have been comforting to nations facing China’s wrath.

A favorite expression of this anger has been trade boycotts for what China considers misbehavior. Hours after Ms. Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, China imposed economic measures on the island in retaliation.

Over the past two years, China has banned exports of Australian wine, lobster and coal after its government called for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19, which first emerged in China. The Chinese government still maintains economic sanctions on South Korea for allowing the United States in 2017 to deploy an anti-missile defense system known as THAAD.

When South Korea’s new leader, Yoon Suk-yeol, recently said he might consider a second installment of the system, China threatened more sanctions.

China’s economic bans and growing authoritarianism have hurt its standing in South Korea, where 80% of the population now have negative views of the country, according to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center.

“China ranks first among South Korea’s most disliked countries,” said a retired general, Shin Won-sik, who is now a member of the National Assembly. “About a decade ago, South Koreans had similar views of China to the US”

In response to China’s threat, he said, South Korea and Japan, which have historically had frosty relations, agreed for the first time to join the United States in launching trilateral military exercises.

Japan, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Washington’s China strategy, has increased coordination with the United States on Taiwan. Japan’s defense ministry has also moved troops, anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-ship missile defense batteries to the country’s southern islands, some of which are near Taiwan.

Public opinion in Japan has turned decisively against China, and support for Taiwan has grown, providing an opportunity for Washington to capitalize on closer ties between Japan and Taiwan. But Japan also wants to avoid any unnecessary new friction between the United States and China.

The trip was “not entirely of strategic benefit to us,” said Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo. “We strongly support Taiwan’s democracy and also really appreciate the US efforts to defend Taiwan, including arms sales to Taiwan.”

“But this is completely different,” he added. “What we really want to see is a more peaceful environment that really enables us, Japan and the United States, to strengthen our security cooperation with Taipei.”

Across the region, the United States has made strategic efforts to embrace allies into a more cohesive coalition, with military and diplomatic underpinnings.

A year ago, Australia agreed to a landmark defense pact, known as AUKUS, with the United States and Britain to acquire nuclear propulsion technology for planned submarines.

In a visit last month to Australia, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, reaffirmed Washington’s policy of fortifying Australia with new weapons. “Chinese military activity is noticeably and statistically more aggressive than in previous years,” Mr. Milley said during his visit.

Along with the United States, Australia is spending money and diplomatic capital to help counter growing Chinese influence in the Pacific Islands, a strategically important region in the event of a war with China.

It’s a complicated position to navigate. The economies of many of America’s allies in the region, including Japan, South Korea and Australia, are heavily dependent on China. About a third of Australia’s exports go to China.

Despite poor diplomatic relations, sales of Australian iron ore, a key raw material for Chinese industry, rose last year. Now, wine and coal exporters are trying to get their products back into the Chinese market.

There has been a flurry of high-level talks to try to mend relations. Australia’s new defense minister, Richard Marles, met with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, in Singapore last month.

Ms Wong met Wang Yi, her Chinese counterpart, in Bali, ending a two-year diplomatic freeze. He has gone out of his way to say that China and Australia are not enemies.

As countries now brace for the fallout from Ms Pelosi’s visit, heightened tensions between the two superpowers have finally raised questions about the US president’s authority.

“It doesn’t say much about Biden’s influence that he can’t prevail on the speaker from his own party,” said Alan Dupont, a former defense intelligence analyst for the Australian government, noting that the president had said the military did not consider the visit it was a good idea.

A previous speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, visited Taiwan 25 years ago. But Mr. Gingrich was a Republican and President Bill Clinton was a Democrat, a political situation that made the trip more defensible. Mr. Gingrich visited China and met with its then leader, Jiang Zemin, before going to Taiwan, via Japan, an unthinkable schedule today.

China’s military was also much weaker then and was just beginning to modernize its forces, which now include a much more powerful missile array and a greatly expanded navy.

Even in Australia, a politically hardline democracy where people knew Ms. Pelosi was a powerful figure, it was unfathomable that Mr. Biden did not persuade her to cancel, Mr. Dupont said.

“An unnecessary crisis,” he said. “An own goal, the USA put themselves in that position.”

Ben Dooley contributed reporting.

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