PHNOMPEN, Cambodia — Just hours after five Chinese missiles exploded in Japanese waters off Taiwan, Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers found themselves awkwardly close to each other in the waiting room for Thursday night’s gala dinner at the Association’s meeting. peoples of Southeast Asia.
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, greeted the reporters before entering the room, stood there for three minutes, and then walked out to his motorcade. He has already canceled plans for a bilateral meeting with his Japanese counterpart in the Cambodian capital after Japan signed a G-7 statement expressing concern over Beijing’s “threatening actions”. But the prospect of even an accidental exchange might be too great; Witnesses said that Mr. Wang left and did not return.
Across Asia, this was seen as yet another sign of a more volatile and dangerous environment following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week.
Chinese military retaliatory exercises continued on Friday around the self-governing democratic island that China claims as its own. Once again, American officials tried to show they would not be intimidated by China, calling on other countries to condemn its actions while looking for ways to de-escalate. As both great powers argued that their efforts involving Taiwan were reasonable, the conflict pointed to rising risks of a wider conflict, possibly involving more countries.
The United States intends to heavily arm Taiwan, provide Australia with nuclear submarine propulsion technology, and possibly deploy more missiles across the region as many analysts and officials fear China’s rising military power will make brinkmanship more widespread and varied. Demonstrations like this one this week give a glimpse of how far Beijing is willing to go in a region of the world of immense economic importance that is becoming increasingly militarized and facing closer encounters with deadly weapons.
“We are entering a period where China is more capable and likely to use force to protect its interests, especially interests that it considers key and non-negotiable, such as Taiwan,” said Bonnie Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Research Center . Strategic and international studies. At the same time, she added, Beijing signaled to Taiwan, Japan and others that it is more likely to escalate against US allies than against the United States itself.
If the ultimate goal is to marginalize the United States in Asia, as many believe, China seems to believe that intimidating or diverting other countries from American ties will 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 in dealing with America’s allies.
That same month, China and Russia conducted joint exercises over the seas in Northeast Asia when President Biden was visiting the region, and Chinese planes attacked Canadian planes stationed in Japan, forcing the pilots to maneuver to avoid a collision.
Actions around Taiwan go further – for the first time, Chinese missiles are launched into the waters of the exclusive economic zone of Japan and missiles are launched over Taiwanese airspace. Together, these vigorous actions carry what many in the region see as a multilayered message from Chinese leaders: You are vulnerable, and the United States will not stop China.
Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken tried to counter that argument Friday in a speech to his Southeast Asian counterparts in Cambodia.
Speaking after China’s Mr. Wang, Mr. Blinken told the group that Beijing sought to intimidate not only Taiwan, but also its neighbors, according to a Western official present. Calling the Chinese government’s reaction to Ms. Pelosi’s peaceful visit a blatant provocation, he referred to Chinese missiles landing near Japan and asked, “How would you feel if this happened to you?”
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At a press conference, Mr. Blinken said: “We will support our allies and partners and work with and through regional organizations to empower friends in the region to make their own decisions without coercion.”
There is some evidence for this. Senior US officials have been visiting Asia more frequently this year, working to expand partnerships such as a security pact called AUKUS with Australia and the UK and announcing new embassies in several Pacific island countries.
But doubts about American resolve remain prevalent in Asia. The backlash against free trade has left both 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 have “over-militarized” the China issue because they don’t have bold economic plans.
Others see stagnation in American diplomatic ideas and military adaptation. Sam Roggeven, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, noted that while China’s rise has accelerated, America’s military structure in the region has remained largely unchanged since the end of the Cold War.
“During this time, the whole security order in Asia has been turned upside down,” he said. “Given everything that has happened, their friends and allies in the region are rightfully concerned about the erosion of confidence in American deterrence.”
Washington’s ambivalence about Ms. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, when senior White House security advisers suggested she cancel it, seems to confirm that even the United States is unsure of its own firmness. And after years of Trump, the possibility of another American president leaving Asia never leaves the minds of regional leaders.
They know what China wants: to rule Taiwan and to keep other countries from interfering in what Beijing claims is its own business. And for many Southeast Asian countries, this looks easier than what the United States might demand, such as stationing troops, granting naval access, or placing long-range missiles on their soil.
“The main consideration is how to respond to China and how close to be to the United States,” said Oriana Skyler Mastro, a research fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. They don’t want to “get too far ahead.”
Indonesia, which is projected to become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030, could play a larger role in shaping regional relations, but has yet to show much interest in abandoning its non-aligned stance.
Vietnam is a constant mystery to Americans: US officials understand its long history of hostility towards China, exacerbated by ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, so it could be a natural partner. But some US officials say they understand Vietnamese leaders want to get closer to both superpowers.
Cambodia presents another predicament. China’s economic influence is being felt throughout the country, and Cambodian leaders recently agreed that China expand and update naval base, which alarmed Washington.
“There is a combination of what the United States is going to do, what the United States’ policy is over time, and what the power of China is,” Ms. Mastro said. “And can they stay away?”
Many countries seem to be banking on a stronger military. Japan increased its military budget by 7.3% last year, Singapore by 7.1%, South Korea by 4.7% and Australia by 4%. research work from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Even taken together, these increases were not in line with the Chinese dollar-to-dollar exchange rate. Beijing increased its military spending by 4.7 percent to $293 billion, less than the $801 billion spent by the United States but 72 percent more than its spending a decade ago.
This trend line will continue to be of concern not only in Washington, but also among America’s closest allies in the region, Australia, South Korea and Japan, as well as in many countries that have tried not to choose sides.
Edward Wong reported from Phnom Penh and Damien Cave from Sydney, Australia. Ben Dooley provided reporting from Tokyo.