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U.S. Alliances Set Up a New Cold War

Apr 19, 2024
  • Zhong Yin

    Research Professor, Research Institute of Global Chinese and Area Studies, Beijing Language and Culture University

Recently, two so-called historic events have taken place under America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. One is the U.S.-Japan Summit, which is said to have “reached unprecedented heights” and to mark “a new era of strategic cooperation.” Second is the first trilateral summit of the United States, Japan and the Philippines, which was touted as “the culmination of decades of partnership” that will expand across multiple sectors in the days to come.

Before these meetings was another first — a four-way confab of the U.S., Japan, Australia and the Philippines as they conducted their “joint maritime cooperative activity” in the South China Sea. In July, the second U.S.-Japan-ROK Summit will take place to symbolize tighter trilateral ties. The frequency and density of all these related activities, combined with U.S. efforts to establish new platforms, lay bare America’s sense of urgency to form a network of alliances in the region.

Since the Cold War, the U.S. had been developing a hub-and-spokes alliance system in the Asia Pacific, with the U.S. sitting in the middle and allowing each alliance member to develop security relations bilaterally with it, rather than forming a multilateral framework, as in Europe. After the end of the Cold War, the alliance system has not been dismantled but rather reinforced to suit new situations, with rising powers such as Russia and China increasingly serving as the major targets.

China’s rise to become the world’s second-largest GDP in 2010 is a game-changer. If China had been only a distant threat in the past, it has now become a realistic one. That was how America’s “pivot to Asia” theory was born, and how it gradually developed into the Indo-Pacific Strategy as it is today. Forging a network of alliances has been a central task. In the words of its. officials, the U.S. is now seeking “a grid-like strategic architecture” in the Indo-Pacific to counter China. Its recent activities are key steps aimed at “turning China into a regional pariah.” 

Military deterrence against China by the U.S. and its allies has become more systematic and comprehensive, with a view toward connecting the East China Sea, South China Sea and Taiwan Strait and reinforcing one another.  The United States and Japan have completed their largest upgrade in security relations since 1960 under the bilateral alliance. For the first time in history, the U.S. has changed the command structure of its military stationed in Japan and established a joint command center to enable greater interoperability and planning during peacetime and emergencies. By so doing, they are trying to threaten China by sending a message that if anything occurs in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, they can counterattack immediately.

On the other hand, since Ferdinand Marcos Jr. — known as Bongbong — took office as president of the Philippines last year, the U.S. has found another proxy in the region. With U.S. military support, the country rejected the status quo in South China Sea with regard to China, creating friction around Ren’ai Reef. The country also shows interest in coordinating with the U.S. and Japan in the Taiwan Strait.

During the trilateral summit, in exchange for military cooperation by Japan and the Philippines and their endorsement of its approach to the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. has tried to sell the notion of “ironclad commitments” to the two, condemning China’s alleged “dangerous and aggressive behavior” in both the South China Sea and East China Sea. It also plans to conduct more joint maritime activities with them in the future.

As a matter of fact, the military capabilities of the Philippines lag far behind the U.S. and Japan. However, its geographical location is what really counts. Through these two alliances, the U.S. can link Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia militarily. Further, by adding Australia into the joint maneuver, China’s geopolitical space can be further throttled.

The U.S. also seeks to incorporate Japan into the AUKUS system, so as to further materialize its strategic framework in the Indo-Pacific. On April 8, the defense chiefs of the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia announced that Japan will cooperate in “advanced technology fields” under AUKUS, which constitutes its second pillar after submarine cooperation. Through joint scientific and technological cooperation in major fields, including hypersonic weapons and artificial intelligence, the U.S. aims to enhance the deterrent power of the whole Western camp.

It should be noted that U.S. efforts in this regard are definitely not limited to the military domain. What it really wants is a multilayered, cross-field strategic architecture. Apart from security, the common areas for cooperation for virtually all the Indo-Pacific alliances (with only slightly differences) are high technology, supply chains, green energy, cyber and outer space. For example, during the trilateral summit, the U.S. declared the creation of the Luzon Economic Corridor to support connectivity of military operations at Subic Bay, Clark Air Base and Naval Base Manila. Considering the recent antagonism between China and the Philippines over the Belt and Road Initiative project, the ambition to replace Chinese infrastructure is crystal clear.

The U.S. approach to fabricating a strategic architecture based on alliances will only accelerate the transformation of the region into opposing camps, further leading the world into a Cold War-style configuration and dragging the big powers into a dangerous Thucydides trap.

It should be remembered that Asia, whose societies are highly diverse but culturally compatible and harmonious, rather than confrontational, would be reserved about ganging up with U.S. against China. As can be seen, Japan’s attitude toward being a part of AUKUS remains ambiguous. Marcos is also trying to provide reassurances that the trilateral cooperation is not aiming at China and that China’s investments in his country will not be put at risk.

Considering the shaky domestic situation in the United States — serious inflation and political division, coupled with uncertain prospects for the November election that could bring Donald Trump back to the White House — the U.S. has neither the energy nor the credit to bring this hollow concept of strategic structure to reality. 

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