Summits held across the Asia-Pacific have underscored the notion of an escalating Cold War between the United States and China. Rather than bridging divides, the meetings have raised concerns that regional nations may soon be forced to choose their loyalty between one or the other superpowers.
The US and China not only forwarded competing visions for the future of the world’s most dynamic region, but also directly criticized each other in a bid to shore up support among regional partners in attendance at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summits held respectively in recent days in Singapore and Papua New Guinea.
Top American officials accused China of engaging in predatory economics and “debt-trap” diplomacy through massive strings-attached infrastructure investments, while coercively altering the region’s maritime status quo via relentless militarization of the South China Sea.
Washington aims to counter China’s rising influence through expanded naval cooperation with like-minded powers, military aid to allies and strategic partners, and mobilization of large-scale public-private investments through the recently-passed US$60 billion Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act.
In turn, Chinese leaders accused the US of promoting trade protectionism and embracing unilateralism and confrontation in narrow pursuit of its interests. They presented China as an indispensable partner for regional development and security.
The two sides also showed little appetite for any compromise over outstanding areas of difference, ranging from the ongoing trade war to increasingly dangerous naval jostling in the high seas, particularly in the South China Sea.
Ahead of his visit to Singapore for the Asean summit, US Vice President Mike Pence published a high-profile op-ed in the Washington Post, where he underscored Washington’s “steadfast and enduring” commitment to the region.
Though he fell short of directly naming China, the American leader touted greater cooperation with “like-minded nations”, namely Australia, India and Japan, to counter “[a]uthoritarianism and aggression.”
He promised that US President Donald Trump’s administration “is taking decisive action to protect our interests and promote the Indo-Pacific’s shared success” and, together with allies, will “stand up to anyone who threatens our interests and our values.”
During his visit to Singapore, Pence made it clear that, “The South China Sea doesn’t belong to any one nation.” He reiterated that the US, “will continue to sail and fly wherever international law allows and our national interests demand” in defiance of any Chinese effort to impose an exclusion zone in the contested area.
He also characterized “China’s militarization and territorial expansion in the South China Sea” as an “illegal and dangerous” development, which “threatens the sovereignty of many nations and endangers the prosperity of the world.”
Indirectly accusing Beijing of recreating a neo-tributary order in Asia, he told Southeast Asian leaders that there should be no place for “empire and aggression” in the region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying was quick to strike down any suggestion that Beijing is breaking international law and undermining freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.
The Chinese foreign ministry made a point of questioning America’s moral ascendancy, reminding American officials that their country “has yet to ratify the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS)” while it talks about “protection of peace and stability in the South China Sea area.”
China is a party to the UNCLOS, though critics note it has defied a The Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration decision handed down in mid-2016 in which ruled against Beijing’s sweeping claims to the sea vis-à-vis the Philippines based on the international law.
During his 40-minute speech at the Apec summit in Port Moresby on Saturday (November 17), Chinese President Xi Jinping emphatically portrayed the US, albeit indirectly, as a clear and present threat to regional peace and security.
“Unilateralism and protectionism will not solve problems but add uncertainty to the world economy,” the Chinese leader said, lashing out at Washington’s imposition of protective tariffs against trading partners across the Indo-Pacific region.
“History has shown that confrontation, whether in the form of a cold war, a hot war or a trade war, produces no winners,” the Chinese leader said.
Only minutes after, in a speech after before delegates gathered in a cruise-liner docked at Port Moresby’s Fairfax Harbor, Pence defended his government’s protectionist policies because “China has taken advantage of the United States for many, many years and those days are over.”
He said that Washington won’t relent, still enjoys significant room for further tariff imposition, and “will not change course until China changes its ways.”
The American deputy leader took a jab at China’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, stating that Washington and its allies “don’t offer constricting belts or a one-way road.”
Indicating the Trump administration’s determination to take the fight to China including in the South Pacific, Pence also announced that the US and Australia will jointly develop Lombrum Naval Base in Papua New Guinea as a counter to Beijing’s recent moves in the maritime region.
Jointly redeveloping what used to be a major naval based used by America during World War II is aimed “to protect sovereignty and maritime rights in the Pacific islands,” Pence said.
Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne suggested that some Australian warships could be permanently stationed at Lombrum in the near future.
Australia earlier announced a multi-billion dollar effort to develop infrastructure of South Pacific countries amid growing concerns over China’s rising economic influence and strategic footprint in the area.
The US and Australia have been perturbed by the news that China has been exploring the establishment of a permanent military base in neighboring Vanuatu.
Just as Pence made those announcements, the US conducted two-carrier naval drills involving the USS Ronald Reagan and USS John C Stennis strike groups and their escorts in the Philippine Sea off of Japan.
“Bringing two carrier strike groups together provides unparalleled naval combat power, tremendous operational flexibility and reach across the region,” the US Indo-Pacific Command Vice Admiral Phil Sawyer said, signaling Washington’s growing resolve to demonstrate its naval power amid China’s rising assertiveness.
“It shows our forces at their best, operating confidently at sea, and demonstrates that the US Navy will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows. The increased presence of two carrier strike groups in the region highlights the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Last year, the US conducted a rare tri-carrier exercise, involving the USS Nimitz, USS Reagan and USS Roosevelt, near the Korean Peninsula amid heightened tensions in that area with North Korea.
The Trump administration is yet to elaborate on its competing economic strategy for the region, but it has made it clear that expanding its military footprint in the area is one of its primary methods to counter China’s growing ambitions in what the US now terms the Indo-Pacific region.