U.S. sees opportunity as Beijing’s bluster drives neighbors into new alliances

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SEOUL, South Korea — Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping declared themselves satisfied Monday after two days of fence-mending talks in Beijing, but there are other conversations underway in China’s neighborhood that are giving Mr. Xi greater cause for concern.

The defense chiefs of India and Vietnam — two states which have fought wars against China, and which have unsettled territorial disputes with Beijing — are currently holding talks in New Delhi, and later this week, defense cooperation deals are expected to be inked when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi summits with President Joe Biden in Washington on June 22 for a state visit.

And just last week, the national security chiefs of Japan, the Philippines and the U.S. huddled in Tokyo for a meeting laying out blueprints for what looks to be the region’s third, U.S.-led trilateral defense partnership formed with meeting the China challenge in mind.

For a China whose territorial disputes include a sometimes violent clash with India in the high Himalayas, a battle with multiple states over territorial claims to the South China Sea, a frozen conflict with Japan over islands in the East China Sea and the existential dispute over the future of Taiwan, these various parleys cannot be reassuring.

That may explain Beijing’s decision to allow Mr. Blinken to come for long-delayed talks, but it’s also a sign that Chinese behaviors are alienating the region, said one analyst. China’s actions, according to this reading, are sparking a predictable reaction.

“The trend over the past few years is that China is perceived as being forward leaning, but its assertiveness is making people wary and encouraging coalition-building,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations professor at Troy University. “The Chinese are not oblivious to what is going on, so maybe there is a sense of overreach — maybe they have hit a wall.”

SEE ALSO: South Korea faces China down in diplomatic escalation

Eyes on China

To take just one example: A high-level delegation led by Vietnamese Minister of Defense General Phan Van Giang is paying an official visit to India this week at the invitation of Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh.

India is a democracy and a member of the non-binding “Quad” Security Dialog, along with Australia, Japan and the U.S., while Vietnam remains a one-party communist regime. However, both nations are non-aligned, and both depend substantially on weapons from Russia.

And both also have reasons to look askance at China.

India fought a border war with China in 1962 and is currently jostling with Chinese troops over the hazy border line in the Himalayas.

Vietnam fought a border war with China in 1979 and is at odds with Chinese forces trying to enforce aggressive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

“The visit of Minister Phan Van Giang and the Vietnamese delegation has contributed to the further development of bilateral defense cooperation — an important and strategic pillar of the Vietnam-India comprehensive strategic partnership,” Vietnam’s state-controlled press reported.

Indian press outlets reported that the two countries have agreed on military-to-military exchanges, high-level visits, training programs, bilateral drills and maritime cooperation.

India, which administers the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, controls access to the northwestern entrance to the Malacca Strait — a shipping channel vital to China and other East Asian states. The strait’s southeastern entrance is dominated by Southeast Asian nations.

“In the last few years, India has been supplying missiles and other weapons for the Vietnamese navy, so from that perspective, a kind of alliance is emerging, with China as a factor in mind,” said Lakhvinder Singh, an Indian academic who heads the Asia Institute’s Peace Studies program.

India, whose navy includes two aircraft carriers, two nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and 16 conventional submarines, is equipped to be a power player in the Bay of Bengal and beyond.

While Mr. Singh emphasized that New Delhi is not targeting a specific country in its build-up, he added, “No other country in the region can take the responsibility we have: We have the population, economic resources and military resources to make a balance of power and ensure rule of law.”

As part of Mr. Modi’s upcoming Washington state visit, Mr. Biden and his aides are likely to try to wean India off its reliance on Russian arms. Anticipated deals, according to Reuters, include approval for General Electric to manufacture engines for Indian fighter jets, a purchase agreement for SeaGuardian drones made by General Atomics worth $3 billion, and removal of U.S. law and regulations that prevent smoother trade in defense and high tech.

A trio of trilateral partnerships

Nations are pairing up against China even when the U.S. is not there to prod them.

The national defense advisors of Japan, Korea and the Philippines last week held their first-ever joint dialogue in Tokyo. The three discussed trilateral naval drills and the transfer of Japanese naval gear to Manila. A day earlier, Japanese and U.S. advisors had met their South Korean counterparts for strategic talks.

On yet another track, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. are proceeding with their AUKUS framework, and the nascent Tokyo-Manila-Washington network is another of the three-way regional partnerships.

From China’s perspective, a favorable political environment has enabled Washington to forge a chain of defensive relationships that dominate key naval choke points north and south of Taiwan and could frustrate Beijing’s regional ambitions before they can get going in earnest.

In Manila, the pro-U.S. government of Ferdinand “BongBong” Marcos has granted the Pentagon rotational basing rights in Palawan and Luzon. Palawan faces Chinese air-sea bases in the South China Sea, while Luzon offers the ideal springboard to interdict Chinese naval traffic through the strategic Luzon Strait between the Philippines and nearby Taiwan.

In Seoul, conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol has moved swiftly to upgrade his security alliance with the United States, and repair relations with Japan, offering Washington its long-sought dream of a trilateral security net east of China. Mr. Yoon’s administration reacted with unusual vigor to a diplomatic dust-up when China’s ambassador to Seoul effectively warned South Korea of allying too closely with Washington.

In Japan, conservative Premier Fumio Kishida is implementing multiple long-term policies to build up the country’s military forces, increase their long-range effectiveness to project power and give Tokyo more options in any conflict with China over the contested Japan-administered Senkaku Islands or Taiwan.

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