September 23, 2023

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Just hours after five Chinese missiles were fired into Japanese waters near Taiwan, the foreign ministers of China and Japan stood uncomfortably close together in the reception hall for a gala dinner Thursday night at a meeting of the Union of countries of Southeast Asia.

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, greeted reporters before entering the hall, stayed for three minutes, and then left in his motorcade. He had already canceled plans for a bilateral meeting with his Japanese counterpart in the Cambodian capital after Japan signed a Group of 7 statement expressing concern over Beijing’s “threatening actions”. But the prospect of even an occasional exchange may have been overblown. Witnesses said Mr. Wang left and did not return.

Across Asia, it was seen as yet another sign of the more volatile and dangerous environment that has emerged since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week.

Retaliatory drills by the Chinese military continued on Friday around the self-governing, democratic island, which China claims as its own. U.S. officials have again sought to show they will not be cowed by China, rallying other nations to denounce its actions while seeking ways to de-escalate. With both major powers arguing that their efforts in Taiwan were reasonable and justified, the conflict showed the accelerating risks of a wider conflict, possibly involving more countries and locations at sea and in the air.

The United States plans to heavily arm Taiwan, give Australia technology for nuclear submarine propulsion and possibly base more missiles across the region, as many analysts and officials worry that China’s growing military power will make it more common and varied the edge of the cliff. Displays like this week’s give an indication of how far Beijing is willing to go in a region of huge economic importance that is becoming increasingly militarized and facing more close calls with lethal weapons.

“We’re entering a period where China is more capable and likely to use force to protect its interests, especially interests it views as core and non-negotiable like Taiwan,” said Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Studies. At the same time, Beijing has signaled to Taiwan, Japan and others, he added, that it is more willing to escalate against US allies than against the United States itself.

If the ultimate goal is to push the United States to the sidelines in Asia, as many believe, China seems to believe that fearing or coaxing other countries away from American ties would be more productive than a direct challenge. Even before Ms. Pelosi’s trip, China had begun to push the boundaries of acceptable military behavior, especially with America’s allies.

In May, a Chinese jet intercepted an Australian maritime surveillance flight in international airspace over the South China Sea, firing flares, clipping its nose and releasing a bundle of straw into the Australian jet’s engine. US and Australian defense officials called the engagement an extremely dangerous maneuver.

That same month, China and Russia held joint exercises in the seas of Northeast Asia as President Biden visited the region, and Chinese jets struck Canadian aircraft deployed in Japan, forcing the pilots to maneuver to avoid a collision.

Actions around Taiwan are moving further — with Chinese missiles fired into the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone for the first time and missiles fired over Taiwan’s airspace. Together, the bold moves convey what many in the region see as a double-edged message from China’s leaders: You are vulnerable, and China will not be deterred by the United States.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken sought to counter that argument Friday in a speech to Southeast Asian counterparts in Cambodia.

According to a Western official who attended, Mr. Blinken, speaking after China’s Mr. Wang, emphasized to the group that Beijing had tried to bully not only Taiwan, but its neighbors as well. Calling the Chinese government’s response to a peaceful visit by Ms Pelosi blatantly provocative, he referred to Chinese missiles landing near Japan and asked: “How would you feel if that happened to you?”

At a press conference this afternoon, Mr Blinken said: “We will stand by our allies and partners and work with and through regional organizations to allow friends in the region to make their own decisions without coercion.”

There are some indications of this. Senior US officials are visiting Asia more often this year, working out the details of expanded partnerships such as the security pact called AUKUS with Australia and Britain, and announcing new embassies to be opened in several Pacific island nations.

But doubts about American resolve remain common in Asia. An anti-free trade backlash among many American voters has left Republican and Democratic leaders reluctant to push for any ambitious trade deals in the region, despite calls from Asian nations. This is a glaring omission as China’s economic influence grows.

Some analysts in Washington say recent US administrations are “overmilitarizing” the China issue because they lack bold economic plans.

Others see stagnation and a lack of creativity with American diplomatic ideas and military accommodation. Sam Roggeveen, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian research institute, noted that while China’s rise has accelerated, America’s military structure in the region remains essentially unchanged since the end of the Cold War.

“The entire security order in Asia has been overturned in that time, and yet the American military presence remains unchanged,” he said. “Given all that has happened, friends and allies in the region are rightly concerned about the erosion of the credibility of American deterrence.”

The apparent ambivalence in Washington about Ms. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan – with top White House security advisers suggesting she move out of Taipei this month – only seemed to confirm that the United States is not sure of her position either. And after four years of President Donald J. Trump, the possibility of another US president walking away from Asia is never far from the minds of the region’s leaders.

They know what China wants: to rule Taiwan and other countries out of what Beijing claims are its internal affairs. And for many Southeast Asian countries, that seems easier to facilitate than what the United States is likely to ask for, such as troop deployment, naval access, or the basing of long-range missiles on their territory.

“The No. 1 concern is how to respond to China and how close we will get to the United States,” said Oriana Skyler Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies who focuses on Chinese security policy. “They don’t want to lean too far forward and get too far forward.”

Indonesia, which is projected to have the world’s fourth-largest economy around 2030, is a country that could play a bigger role in shaping regional relations, but has yet to show much interest in breaking out of its non-aligned position.

Vietnam is a persistent conundrum for Americans: American officials understand its long history of hostility toward China, exacerbated by ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, so it could be a natural partner. But the ruling Communist Party maintains close ties with its counterpart in Beijing, and some US officials say they realize Vietnamese leaders want to straddle the fence with both superpowers.

Cambodia presents another dilemma. China’s economic influence is felt throughout the country, and Cambodia’s leaders recently agreed to have China expansion and upgrade a naval base, worrying Washington.

“There’s a combination of what the United States is going to do, what the United States’ policy is over time, and what Chinese power is like — there’s all these things that they’re trying to weigh,” Ms. Mastro said. who is also a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “And can they stay out of it?”

Many Asian countries appear to be betting that a stronger military will help by increasing their deterrents. Japan increased its military budget by 7.3 percent last year, Singapore by 7.1 percent, South Korea by 4.7 percent and Australia by 4 percent, according to research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Even combined, these increases were not enough to match the Chinese dollar. Beijing increased its military spending by 4.7 percent to $293 billion, less than the $801 billion the United States spent, but a 72 percent increase over its spending a decade ago.

That trend line will continue to cause anxiety not only in Washington, but also America’s closest allies in the region, Australia, South Korea and Japan — and many of the countries that have tried not to take sides.

Edward Wong reported from Phnom Penh and Damien Cave from Sydney, Australia. Ben Dooley contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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