America’s “pivot to Asia” finally shifts into high gear
JAKARTA – With Afghanistan in the rearview mirror, the United States, Britain and Australia forming a new security accord and the United States stepping up forces and exercises in the region, the so-called “pivot towards Asia ”conceived for the first time under the administration of Barack Obama could finally shift into high gear under President Joe Biden.
Out is the general confusion of Donald Trump’s presidency; This appears to be a much clearer and firmer policy towards China, whose intimidation tactics in the South China Sea are making some countries struggle to keep common ground.
“I think the Biden administration has made an internal commitment to bringing the pivot to life,” said a former State Department official, noting that the plan’s architect, Kurt Campbell, deputy secretary of state for Obama for East Asian Affairs is now the head of national security. Coordinator of the Council for the Indo-Pacific.
The retired official said the September 23 signing of the AUKUS deal between the three Western allies is the first tangible sign that Washington is facing China and moving away from its earlier fixation with the Middle East and the Afghanistan.
This and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, involving the United States, Australia, India and Japan, show that Washington-led alliances are quietly bypassing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) in conflict, in an attempt to blunt Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea. .
But it has led to growing anxiety across Southeast Asia as to what might happen next. “ASEAN needs to take a close look at how it is positioning itself,” Vietnam Diplomatic Academy vice president Nguyen Sung Son said in a recent discussion. “The centrality of ASEAN is set in stone, so we know they are trying to get around it.”
For now, Washington is expected to move more slowly in North Asia, where the Japanese government is undergoing a change of leadership and South Korea is engaged in the latest exchanges in its endless efforts to improve relations with North Korea.
Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific Commander (INDOPACOM) Admiral John Aquilino has reportedly canceled a visit scheduled this month to Singapore, but diplomatic sources say they still expect him to clarifies the position of the United States in an important political announcement in the coming days.
China’s defense strategy is seen by US planners to be based on its fleet of submarines and an increasing capacity for naval surface-to-surface missiles. On the other hand, the American strategy remains largely built around its air superiority based on the carriers.
If the United States cannot find closer bases for its planes, China will retain a short-term advantage, according to a senior US military officer. That’s why the Philippines could become a bigger part of his calculations with Mercurial President and friend of China Rodrigo Duterte ending his term next May.
The United States currently has two Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan, and the heavily armed helicopter carrier USS America, based in Yokosuka and Sasebo, Japan, with a third door. -planes also assigned to the Western Pacific.
Just last week, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Chase and Huang Xueping, deputy director of the Chinese office for military cooperation, ended two days of talks stressing the need to keep communication channels open.
It was the first meeting between the two adversaries since President Biden took office in January, but the signing of AUKUS, under which Washington will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines , has done little to stem the growing tensions in the region.
Neither the simultaneous presence in the South China Sea of the two carrier strike groups nor the massive intrusions of 145 Chinese J-6 and Su-30 fighters and nuclear-capable H-6 bombers in the Taiwan air defense zone between the 1st and the October 4.
Indonesia also seemed powerless to deter a month-long incursion by a Chinese research vessel and two coastguard vessels into its economic exclusion zone in the northern Natuna Sea, which ultimately collapsed. ended when the flotilla withdrew on September 28 without any formal protest from Jakarta.
US Ambassador to Indonesia Sung Kim, whose brief also covers North Korea, took the opportunity last week to tell foreign reporters: “We oppose any country that adopts activities and expansionary, aggressive and excessive behavior in our oceans “.
Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London, also spoke. “China can’t hide its power, but the past two years have been a masterclass on how to lose friends and not influence people,” he said. “Despite this, it will not change the reality that China is, and will continue to be, the great rising power in the region.”
Indonesia seeks to be impartial in its relations with the two superpowers, fearing that it will be forced to choose sides if the rivalry takes a serious turn. But like others in the region, its response to AUKUS has been narrow and focused only on fears of nuclear proliferation and the possibility of a regional arms race.
Beijing’s response aimed at the broader implications of a pact that goes beyond Australia’s possible acquisition of nuclear submarines and covers everything from cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies to extended US access to Australian bases.
Western cyber experts believe the new deal will enable the development of new encryption technologies and help partners detect and fend off potential Chinese threats to submarine fiber-optic cables that are part of military and civilian communications networks. .
In a webinar hosted by the Indonesian Foreign Policy Community, Foreign Ministry Director General for Asia and Africa, Abdul Kadir Jailani, called for a “deeper conversation” between ASEAN and the AKUS partners on what he called a “dangerous precedent”.
Regarding the long-term impact of the security pact, Vietnam’s Son said it was important for the regional group of 10 nations to ask “why this is happening over the head of ASEAN.” Referring to the bloc’s future role, he asked, “Can this be as an honest broker or as a mediator?” ”
Highlighting the pace of Beijing’s arms spending, William Choong, senior researcher at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, described UKUS as “a kind of natural reaction to China’s assertiveness ”and an effort to restore the balance of power in the Region.
Despite all of ASEAN’s diplomatic efforts to keep an equal hand with the two superpowers, the long-standing relationship between the United States and the Indonesian and Filipino military, in particular, remains based on what Kim describes as a “strong. mutual respect “.
In Indonesia, more than 1,500 US troops and a 2,100-man Army Strategic Reserve Force (Kostrad) recently conducted their largest land exercise ever, one of 230 joint military activities that enable the two countries to maintain a high level of interoperability.
The American contingent included advanced elements of the 82sd Airborne division that flew from Guam in a fleet of giant C-17 transport planes for maneuvers, which stretched across South Sumatra, East Kalimantan and North Sulawesi.
Three months earlier, U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets from Misawa Japan Air Base participated in the annual Cope West exercise with the F-16 squadron based in Pekanbaru, Sumatra, including the main mission is to patrol the northern maritime border of Indonesia.
The next naval exercises between the two countries are planned in Surabaya, headquarters of the 2nd Navy fleet and well away from the southern coast of the South China Sea.
Indonesia’s only recent military exercise with the Chinese took place last May when two guided missile frigates from each country carried out exercises north of Jakarta, which were said to have been designed to “improve coordination during emergencies at sea “.
With Duterte in the final eight months of his presidency, there are signs that the Philippines and the United States may restore some of the more active elements of their 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) when it is renewed. next April.
Although the United States cannot re-establish permanent military bases, it is permitted to rotate troops in the Philippines on extended stays and operate facilities at bases such as Subic Bay and Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan. , strategically located in the heart of the South China Sea, to replenish and supply visiting ships and planes.
Under pressure from his own military, Duterte recently reinstated the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which he had previously threatened to rescind in an apparent effort to appease China, despite the conflict between the two countries in the about the Spratly Islands.