US efforts to counter Chinese military expansionism and political influence in the Indo-Pacific took another significant step forward last week with an agreement to deepen defence and security ties with the Philippines.
Yet US president Joe Biden’s success in developing bilateral and multilateral alliances may have more to do with growing wariness across the region about Beijing than a sudden desire for closer partnership with Washington.
Many people in smaller, traditionally non-aligned countries, worried about getting caught in the middle, would probably prefer their governments not to take sides at all. This rerun battle for the Pacific looks disturbingly like the warm-up for a second cold war.
China’s often harshly enforced claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea has alienated neighbours, provoking numerous confrontations over freedom of navigation, disputed islands and energy resources.
Beijing’s unceasing intimidation of Taiwan, huge military buildup, unhelpful response to the pandemic and backing for Russia’s war in Ukraine fit a broader pattern of off-putting arrogance and domineering behaviour.
President Xi Jinping’s insists China simply wants a stable, prosperous multipolar world where countries follow their own path, free from outside interference and western ideas about “universal” democratic and human rights. But what this boils down to in practice is a transparent bid by China to replace American global leadership with its own and upend the post-1945 international rules-based order.
Western analysts sometimes mistakenly attribute to Xi a genius for strategic masterplans he does not actually possess. Xi is no charismatic giant like Mao Zedong – except, like Mao, he makes giant-sized mistakes.
His policies exacerbated China’s recent economic downturn by extending Communist party control over privately run businesses. Misconceived Covid lockdowns and a property market debt crisis were also his handiwork.
At bottom, Xi is just another fallible, opportunistic politician, focused on power. His new buzzword – securitisation – is primarily about maintaining his own and the party’s unchallenged dominance.
Xi’s “wolf-warrior” diplomatic offensive is one of his biggest blunders. Given the task by him to show China’s “fighting spirit” to the world, these verbally, sometimes physically, aggressive envoys have hugely damaged its international image.
Last autumn, worried about lagging economic growth, trade tensions and domestic unrest, Xi attempted to rein in his snarling envoys while adopting a less confrontational tone with the west after a meeting with Biden in Bali.
Yet wolf warriors, including Qin Gang, the new foreign minister, are still throwing their weight around six months later. Offensive comments by China’s ambassador in Manila, who appeared to threaten the safety of Filipinos working in Taiwan, are a case in point.
The ensuing backlash helped boost public support for last week’s White House agreement with the Philippines president, Ferdinand Marcos, which confirmed US access to four military bases.
Marcos has tried to balance his relationships with the two big kids on the block. China is the Philippines’ top trade partner. He visited Beijing in January. Yet in Manila, as in Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore and other neighbours fearful of being squeezed by superpower rivalry, Chinese bullying – typified by harassment of Philippines coastguard vessels – may be tipping the scales.
Biden, meanwhile, goes to Hiroshima this month for a G7 summit and to Australia for a meeting of the Quad – a group that includes India and Japan and tries to curb Chinese influence.
US military cooperation with Australia is growing through the new Aukus pact and enhanced base-sharing. Japan, already a close ally, is doubling defence spending. Biden recently renewed US nuclear guarantees for South Korea.
Many in the region remain wary of both China and the US. Malaysia’s new prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, seems well disposed towards Beijing. But he firmly rejects its maritime claims. New Zealand also treads a fine line.
The US scramble to recruit regional allies as part of its intensifying global “decoupling” from China poses particular challenges for Biden, given his vow to boost democracy worldwide.
India’s leader, Narendra Modi, acts dictatorially. One-party Vietnam is no democratic beacon. Thailand, facing key elections on 14 May, clings precariously to democracy. Myanmar’s generals have already destroyed it.
Yet Indo-Pacific governments surely realise that US policy is not ultimately motivated by idealism or altruism. Washington, like any great power, ultimately works to sustain its global dominance and secure its interests whichever way it can.
Europe and the EU, which are re-examining the China relationship, face an identical dilemma. France’s Emmanuel Macron advocates a conciliatory, non-judgmental approach – and greater autonomy from the US. Others fiercely disagree, and Beijing actively fuels these divisions. Isolated Britain has concerns, too, but few care what it thinks any more. As its choice of coronation representative shows, China certainly doesn’t.
Ukraine distorts the debate. Many Europeans are desperate to keep the US on side while the war rages – even if that upsets Beijing. Their worst nightmare is that the US under a re-elected Donald Trump walks away.
In any event, it seems that Biden can rely for now on inscrutably bumbling, less-than-omnipotent Xi to make America’s case for ever closer European and Asian union – by needlessly offending, frightening and alienating other countries.
Take, for instance, the recent insulting suggestion by China’s wolf-warrior envoy in Paris, Lu Shaye, that former Soviet republics are not truly independent, sovereign states. It was an extraordinarily foolish own goal.
Beijing mumblingly distanced itself from Lu, but did not apologise. The episode provides a salutary lesson. If this is what future Chinese global leadership means, watch out.