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US-China rivalry stirs ghosts from the past

September 4, 2023 at 6:13 pm

44th US President Barack Obama listens during a joint ratification of the Paris climate change agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) ahead of the G20 Summit at the West lake State Guest House in Hangzhou on September 3, 2016 [HOW HWEE YOUNG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

The Indo-Pacific region presents a rich tapestry of the US administration’s current thinking and manoeuvres within a complex global picture. The longstanding tension between China and Taiwan has been pervasive, as has the resolute stance taken by the US in defending Taiwan’s position and countering China’s expansionism. The US decision to embark on a charm offensive, seeking to forge deeper friendship bonds, has become apparent.

In this context, a significant initial step was taken in September 2021 with the signing of the AUKUS agreement by the US, the UK and Australia. This aimed to enhance Australia’s security capacity, enabling it to access nuclear-powered submarines, which are superior and more capable than conventional vessels and provide a strategic balance against China’s military build-up. Moreover, the agreement led to an increase in rotational military units stationed at strategic US Army bases. Unsurprisingly, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian criticised the agreement, stating that it would “seriously undermine regional peace and stability.”

This year we have witnessed heightened military collaboration between the US and Australia. In January, Australia announced the acquisition of 40 Black Hawk helicopters from the US worth $1.96 billion. Last week, Canberra revealed its plan to purchase Tomahawk cruise missiles worth $1.7bn. Such high-level military procurement shows how Australia is increasingly considered to be a reliable ally of the US, indicating a significant balancing act against China. This balancing act carries with it political and economic consequences, especially considering China’s status as Australia’s largest trading partner.

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The AUKUS agreement included Australia cancelling a $66bn contract for a French-made conventional submarine fleet. The revocation of this contract resulted in a months-long diplomatic crisis within the Western alliance. Macron’s recent visit to Beijing was also meant to send a strong signal to Washington. During this trip, the French President, who had already angered the US with his ambivalent stance on Taiwan, stated that Europe would not be part of a potential conflict between the US and China.

Against this backdrop, the joint military exercise involving the US, Australia, Japan and the Philippines attracted attention, indicating that South-East Asian geopolitical dynamics could undergo disruptive transformations as Washington reshapes the security equation.

During the Cold War, the US military doctrine focused on the ability to conduct two major wars simultaneously. Considering the sophisticated nature of today’s Russian and Chinese militaries, managing two wars simultaneously presents various financial and logistical challenges for the US. Hence, Washington’s strategic thinking has evolved, seeking to strengthen defence alliances and provide more advanced capabilities to allies like Australia, Ukraine and Taiwan. Relying on partners who have beef in the game, with some such as Ukraine already engaged in conflict, is an effective solution for the US in the short and long term.

Washington’s current approach to China is reminiscent of past policies towards Russia, one of which comes directly to mind: the 2007 crisis concerning the radar and ballistic missile defence facilities to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic. These installations aimed to limit Russia’s influence but were construed as protecting Europe from Iran and North Korea. At that time, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that if the US were to build a missile defence system, Russia might consider aiming missiles towards Poland and the Czech Republic. However, the expansion of US military presence in the region continued during the Obama era. In October 2009, during a visit to Warsaw by then Vice President Joe Biden, a new and smaller defence project with a similar agenda to the one presented in 2007 was introduced, and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk welcomed it.

These back-and-forth manoeuvres led Moscow to adopt a more hawkish posture, leading to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Paradoxically, the Kremlin’s reaction led to more US military presence in the region and made the expansion of NATO a logical outcome. Since then, several former Warsaw Pact countries have joined the transatlantic alliance, leading to a slow strategic encirclement of Russia and a stalemate for Russian troops in Ukraine, significantly weakening the Russian position.

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The current US manoeuvres regarding China evoke a sense of déjà vu. The slow encirclement of China and the increasing US presence in the region remind us of the strategies seen previously against Russia.

When examining China’s situation, it’s paramount to acknowledge that Washington cannot ignore the rise of Beijing’s global economic and military power. China’s bellicose policies regarding Taiwan, its economic offensive via the Belt and Road Initiative, and its numerous advancements have left the US with no option but to keep it at bay. 

From Washington’s perspective, the best-case scenario would be for Beijing to follow a similar trajectory to what happened with Russia. However, any miscalculation could shift these manoeuvres from deterring China to producing a threat environment, turning the region into a powder keg that could explode across the world. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.