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Foreign Policy

What’s Afoot in Chinese Peripheral Diplomacy?

Jun 30, 2022
  • Zhao Minghao

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, and China Forum Expert.

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Kurt Campbell, the White House coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs for the National Security Council, speaking at the Center for A New American Security and Center for Strategic and International Studies recently, reiterated that the U.S. administration is determined to implement its Indo-Pacific Strategy and will put forward new proposals for enhancing ties with countries in the region. This display of strategic resolve on the Indo-Pacific, especially against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, will no doubt bring new challenges to China’s neighborhood diplomacy.

Asia-Pacific countries are undergoing stress reactions triggered by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which has provided the U.S. with a pretext for upgrading these countries’ awareness of an alleged China threat. This is done through the tactic of binding China with Russia. Soon after the outbreak of the conflict, U.S. President Joe Biden convened an online Quad meeting with leaders of Australia, India and Japan to discuss the situation and its influence on the Indo-Pacific. Their joint statement said the Ukraine incident should not be allowed to repeat itself in the Indo-Pacific.

Many Asia-Pacific countries hope to promote their own policy agendas. Accusing Russia of “war crimes,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida joined an international clamor and indicated he would follow the U.S. in imposing harsh sanctions on Russia. Under the current rhetoric, “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.”

Japan is, on one hand, dramatically adjusting its own military policies while, on the other, seeking greater influence over security affairs in the Asia-Pacific. Kishida put forward his “Vision for Peace” at the latest Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, stating that Japan will fundamentally strengthen its capacity for self-defense and promoted it simultaneously through a stronger Japan-U.S. alliance and security cooperation with other like-minded countries — “like two wheels.”

In the future, the Biden administration will further play up what it styles as a China-Russia “quasi-alliance,” and a Chinese “gray zone tactic.” Policy documents including the U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, further manipulate related countries’ perception of a China threat, and apply the label of “seeking spheres of influence” on China using the ambiguous concept of competition in the regional order.

Besides the cognitive level, the U.S. is also attempting to pressure China by taking advantage of alliances and partnerships. The Biden administration wants to build a powerful and mutually enhancing network of allies in the Indo-Pacific, carry out deep integration of the strengths of U.S. treaty allies and security partners such as India and further strengthen its strategic advantages against China to create “collective strength.”

Biden visited South Korea and Japan in late May, and attended the second in-person Quad summit. There have been a series of new developments in the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea alliances, as well as in the Quad.

What deserves particular Chinese vigilance — given the Yoon Suk Yeol government’s resolve in the ROK to get tough on China — is the trilateral interaction of the U.S., Japan and South Korea, which is rapidly gaining momentum.

In Singapore, on the sidelines of the June Shangri-La Dialogue, the three countries’ defense chiefs met and proposed, in a joint statement, the resumption of the three-way military drill that had been suspended for five years. The document mentioned Taiwan for the first time.

At the end of this month, Japanese and South Korean leaders will travel to Madrid, Spain, to participate in the NATO summit, during which a summit of American, Japanese and South Korean leaders will be held. This reveals a dangerous trend in the Indo-Pacific’s “NATO-ization” and NATO’s “Indo-Pacific-ization.” Although moves by North Korea, such as test-launching of missiles after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, provided motivation for the U.S., Japan and the ROK to ramp up relations, the trilateral relationship is increasingly targeting China, which may face greater pressure in Northeast Asia.

In Southeast Asia, warming relations between the U.S. and the Philippines are worthy of attention. Taking advantage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s departure from office, the Biden administration will push the Philippines to adjust its China policy, upgrade the military alliance and enhance policy coordination on South China Sea issues. The U.S. and the Philippines held their largest joint military exercise in April — Balikatan 2022 — during which the two sides dispatched more than 9,000 troops. The scope of the drill stretched from north of Luzon Island to waters off Palawan Island.

The Philippine government discontinued negotiations with China on South China Sea issues and expressed support for AUKUS, which is meant to strengthen military pressure on China. The U.S. is trying hard to strengthen its military base in the Philippines, and the possibility of the two parties staging new provocations in the South China Sea cannot be ruled out.

The Biden administration is also escalating efforts to deepen ties with such countries as Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, and has proposed to promote interaction between the Quad countries and ASEAN. The U.S. and Indonesia are planning a joint exercise in August — Garuda Shield 2022 — in which troops from 14 countries, including Britain, Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Canada, will take part.

The U.S. and Indonesia are also building a joint strategic maritime center on Batam island, which lies at the throat of the Malacca Strait. The U.S. will also expand the Batam island airport to accommodate various models of military aircraft.

The Biden administration is attempting to raise its relations with Vietnam to the strategic partnership level and to strengthen the coast guard partnership. It has provided Vietnam with such equipment as Hamilton-class cutters and drones and helped train Vietnamese personnel to upgrade the latter’s military capacity at sea.

Recently, the Biden administration has reacted fiercely against the security cooperation agreement signed between China and the Solomon Islands, indicating U.S. strategic gaming of the so-called Second Island Chain is intensifying swiftly. Kurt Campbell of the White House has explicitly expressed that Pacific Island nations are where “strategic surprise” is mostly likely to happen between China and the U.S.

In addition to the Solomon Islands, the U.S. is closely watching China’s interaction with Kiribati, Vanuatu, Tonga and Fiji. The Biden administration is also expected to put forward proposals to work with such countries as Australia and Japan to undermine Chinese influence in Pacific Island nations.

Economically, the U.S. is striving to intensify competition with China through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Besides core U.S. allies and partners Japan, South Korea, Australia and India, seven of the 10 ASEAN members have chosen to take part. While the IPEF does not offer such practical benefits as tariff exemptions and market access, it will still bring some shocks to Chinese interests and economic influence in the region. More important, the IPEF is a key component of the “new Bretton Woods” system the United States seeks to establish. Both U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Trade Representative Katherine Tai believe the Russia-Ukraine conflict has presented a significant opportunity for the U.S. to build a new world economic order. Many U.S. moves in geo-economic competition are unfolding.

To sum up, as the U.S. continuously pushes forward with its Indo-Pacific Strategy, Chinese neighborhood diplomacy faces many new challenges, which need to be examined from broader, longer-term perspectives. This means China needs to be sophisticated in managing the interaction between its wrangling with the U.S. and its neighborhood diplomacy. It needs to develop a better understanding of neighboring countries’ anxieties, concerns and demands, rather than seeing them solely through the lens of China-U.S. competition. It will need to refine the strategic design of its neighborhood diplomacy in a targeted way and enrich its own policy toolbox.

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