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US, Allies Deepen Indo-Pacific Tensions09/23 06:08

   

   BANGKOK (AP) -- With increasingly strong talk in support of Taiwan, a new 
deal to supply Australia with nuclear submarines, and the launch of a European 
strategy for greater engagement in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. and its allies 
are becoming more assertive in their approach toward a rising China.

   China has bristled at the moves, and the growing tensions between Beijing 
and Washington prompted U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the weekend 
to implore U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to repair 
their "completely dysfunctional" relationship, warning they risk dividing the 
world.

   As the U.N. General Assembly opened Tuesday, both leaders chose calming 
language, with Biden insisting "we are not seeking a new Cold War or a world 
divided into rigid blocs," and Xi telling the forum that "China has never, and 
will never invade or bully others or seek hegemony."

   But the underlying issues have not changed, with China building up its 
military outposts as it presses its maritime claims over critical sea lanes, 
and the U.S. and its allies growing louder in their support of Taiwan, which 
China claims as part of its territory, and deepening military cooperation in 
the Indo-Pacific.

   On Friday, Biden hosts the leaders of Japan, India and Australia for an 
in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue for broad talks including the 
COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, but also how to keep the Indo-Pacific, a 
vast region spanning from India to Australia, "free and open," according to the 
White House.

   It comes a week after the dramatic announcement that Australia would be 
dropping a contract for conventional French submarines in favor of an 
Anglo-American offer for nuclear-powered vessels, a bombshell that overshadowed 
the unveiling of the European Union's strategy to boost political and defense 
ties in the Indo-Pacific.

   "One thing is certain, that everyone is pivoting toward the Indo-Pacific," 
said Garima Mohan, an Asia program fellow with the German Marshall Fund think 
tank.

   As partners pursue moves that play to their own strengths and needs, 
however, the past week has underscored the lack of coordination as a networked 
security strategy develops, she said.

   "Not everyone has the same threat assessment of China," she said in a 
telephone interview from Berlin.

   The EU policy emphasizes the need for dialogue with Beijing, to encourage 
"China to play its part in a peaceful and thriving Indo-Pacific region," while 
at the same time proposing an "enhanced naval presence" and expanded security 
cooperation with regional partners.

   It also notes China's increased military buildup, and that "the display of 
force and increasing tensions in regional hotspots such as in the South and 
East China Sea, and in the Taiwan Strait, may have a direct impact on European 
security and prosperity."

   Germany, which has close economic ties to China, got a wake-up call last 
week when China rejected its request for a port call for the frigate Bavaria, 
which is currently conducting maneuvers in the Indo-Pacific.

   "China is telling them this inclusive approach is not going to work, so in a 
way it's a rude awakening for Berlin," Mohan said. "You have to take a 
position, you can't have your cake and eat it too, and if you have an 
Indo-Pacific strategy ... you can't make it neutral."

   Other EU countries, most notably France, have also sent naval assets for 
exercises in the Indo-Pacific, and Britain has had a whole carrier strike group 
conducting exercises for several months as London pursues the new tilt toward 
the region recommended by a recent British government review of defense and 
foreign policy.

   China's Foreign Ministry said after rejecting the Bavaria's port call that 
it remained "willing to carry out friendly exchanges with Germany on the basis 
of mutual respect and mutual trust," but made clear it was displeased with the 
increased naval presence in the region.

   "Individual powers... have repeatedly dispatched military aircraft and 
warships to the South China Sea for some time in the name of exercising freedom 
of navigation to flex muscle, stir up trouble and deliberately provoke 
conflicts on maritime issues," spokesman Zhao Lijian said. "China's 
determination to safeguard national and territorial sovereignty and maritime 
rights and interests is unwavering, and will continue to properly handle 
differences with the countries concerned through consultations and 
negotiations."

   Beijing was less reserved in its reaction to the submarine deal with 
Australia, under which the U.S. and Britain will help Canberra construct 
nuclear-powered submarines, calling it "highly irresponsible" and saying it 
would "seriously damage regional peace and stability."

   In signing the pact with the U.S. and Britain, Australia canceled a $66 
billion deal with France for diesel-powered submarines, infuriating Paris, 
which recalled its ambassadors to Washington and Canberra and suggested it 
calls into question the entire cooperative effort to blunt China's growing 
influence.

   While clearly irked by the surprise deal, many observers have suggested that 
the vociferous reaction from France may be more directed toward a domestic 
audience, where President Emmanuel Macron faces a reelection bid early next 
year.

   But there was clear disappointment that the U.S. seemed to be ignoring 
France's own engagement in the region by not informing them in advance, said 
Laurence Nardon, an expert at the French Institute for International Relations.

   "There was a way to do this while keeping Europeans in the loop," she said. 
"The Indo-Pacific is important for the EU too; it's not one or the other."

   In a call with Macron late Wednesday, Biden reaffirmed "the strategic 
importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region," 
according to a joint statement.

   More than just a decision to pursue nuclear submarines, the deal was a clear 
signal of Australia committing long term to being in the U.S. camp on China 
policy, said Euan Graham, an expert with the International Institute for 
Strategic Studies in Singapore.

   "The submarine decision represents an emphatic doubling down on the 
Australia-U.S. alliance by both countries," he said in an analysis of the deal.

   As the pact was introduced, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison alluded 
to the long-term nature, saying "at its heart, today's announcements are about 
the oldest of friendships, the strongest of values and the deepest of 
commitment."

   The submarine deal seems likely to exacerbate the ongoing trade war between 
China and Australia, and Australia is hoping to strike a free trade deal with 
Quad partner India to help offset the economic impact.

   While the European strategy outline will take time, the plan provides 
clarity in how the EU is prepared to work with the U.S. and its allies in the 
region -- something that has been lacking in the past.

   "There's a lack of understanding on the U.S. side of why Europe is 
interested in the Indo-Pacific and exactly what kind of role it wants to play," 
Mohan said in a podcast on the issue. "There's also a lack of understanding of 
the U.S. approach."

   In the outline of the strategy, the EU broadly looks to pool its resources 
for greater effect, and to work more closely with the Quad countries, the 
10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and others.

   It also envisions enhancing current operations, such as the Atalanta 
anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa and in the western Indian Ocean, and 
the expansion of the EU maritime security and safety mission in the wider 
Indian Ocean area, which has already been broadened to Southeast Asia.

   "The European assessment is very realistic about what they can and cannot do 
in the region," Mohan said. "It's about making sure the resources, the 
spending, that's done right and has an impact."

 
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