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US increases military relationships in Asia to fight China

  • US accuses China of aggressive maneuvers
  • Rising tensions in South China Sea
  • China’s military and economic ascent

The United States accused China on May 30 of conducting an “unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre” by intercepting one of its spy aircraft over the South China Sea. The US military claims that while the American RC-135 was performing routine operations over the sensitive waterway, a Chinese fighter jet passed precisely in front of its nose.

A video distributed by the United States Indo-Pacific Command captured the RC-135’s cockpit trembling in response to the Chinese jet’s turbulent flight path.

The United States levied a second accusation against China on June 5, the following day, for what it termed a “unsafe” manoeuvre near one of its vessels. It this time surrounded a warship in the Strait of Taiwan. Once more, the US Indo-Pacific Command published a video of the incident, which captured a Chinese vessel abruptly slicing through the trajectory of an American destroyer from an estimated distance of 137 metres (150 yards), compelling the latter to decelerate in order to avert a collision.

Washington stated that the near misses demonstrated China’s “increasing aggressiveness.” However, Beijing held the United States responsible, accusing it of intentionally “provoking risk” by stationing aircraft and vessels near its coastlines for “close in reconnaissance” – actions that Beijing claimed posed a grave threat to its national security.

Navigating Tensions and the Specter of Past Incidents

Reminiscences of a fatal incident that transpired over the South China Sea on April 1, 2001, wherein a Chinese fighter aircraft and an American surveillance plane collided, were stirred by the near misses. The Chinese jet’s pilot died in the collision, forcing the US plane to make an emergency landing in Hainan, China. Eleven days later, Beijing released the twenty-four American aircrew members only after Washington issued an apology for the incident.

Although the two nations successfully managed to reduce tensions at the time, concerns remain that a comparable incident could escalate into a more significant dispute given the deteriorating relations between the superpowers.

The United States considers China to be the most formidable adversary to the international order dominated by the West. It bases this assessment on Beijing’s unprecedented military expansion during times of peace, in addition to its territorial assertions in the East and South China Seas and the Taiwan Strait. The “freedom of navigation exercises” conducted by the United States military in the disputed waterways adjacent to China are an initiative of the Joe Biden administration to expand and strengthen its military and diplomatic ties in the Asia-Pacific.

The campaign, which has gained momentum in the last twelve months, now encompasses regions such as Australia, Papua New Guinea, Japan, the Philippines, and the Solomon Islands. Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, refers to the “once in a generation effort” as encompassing the establishment of new embassies in the area, the deployment of military forces and more sophisticated resources, and the acquisition of strategic sites overlooking the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

Rising Tensions and the Battle for International Influence

China, on the other hand, asserts that the United States employs a strategy of “containment, encirclement, and suppression” in an effort to impede its economic growth. Furthermore, its leaders have made a firm commitment to oppose it.

President Xi Jinping of China stated in a March speech that the US campaign has “brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development” and urged his compatriots to “dare to fight.” In an address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, his former defence minister Li Shangfu denounced what he termed Washington’s “Cold War mentality” and vowed that Beijing would not yield to intimidation and would “resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity, irrespective of the cost.”

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Analysts predict that tensions will continue to escalate due to the intensifying competition between China and the United States over who gets to establish the rules on the international stage. Although the superpower rivalry may provide short-term advantages to Asia Pacific nations, especially in terms of infrastructure financing and foreign direct investments, such countries may find it more difficult to navigate between China and the United States in the future.

“At least in Asia, this is a competition over the appearance of a rules-based order,” Poling told Al Jazeera. “The issue is whether the current international regulations will remain in effect in Asia or whether China will be able to carve out a vast exemption zone where its preferred regulations predominate.”

“Absolutely, the forthcoming couple of decades will be marked by this intensifying competition.” In the absence of a strategic shift by China, competition and tensions will persist not only between the United States and China, but also among the majority of China’s neighbouring countries.

China’s ascent

The end of World War II marked the beginning of an era of American dominance in Asia. In recent decades, however, China’s expanding economic and military power has eroded that uncontested preeminence.

Beijing has made significant military modernization investments under the leadership of Xi, who assumed power in 2012 and advocated for the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation”—a reestablishment of China’s status as a great power. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, estimates that China’s military spending has increased by more than twofold in the last decade. In 2022, these expenditures will total $219 billion, which is still less than one-third of the amount spent by the United States in the same year.

China has initiated a naval shipbuilding initiative which, from 2014 to 2018, has resulted in the deployment of a greater quantity of vessels into service than the combined fleets of Germany, India, Spain, and Great Britain. Since then, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has additionally deployed ballistic missile submarines and guided missile cruisers powered by nuclear energy. It introduced the Fujian, its third aircraft carrier, in June 2022. Additionally, the PLA rocket force has developed anti-ship ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles to modernise its capabilities. The PLA also intends to expedite the growth of its nuclear arsenal to a minimum of 1,000 by 2030 and 700 nuclear warheads by 2027, according to the United States military.

China has become more assertive in enforcing its territorial claims in vital waterways off its coast, in tandem with its military expansion.

China’s Assertive Territorial Claims

Beijing has escalated naval and aerial patrols in the East China Sea, where it asserts sovereignty over a group of islands administered by Japan and referred to as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. This action has elicited disapproval from Tokyo.

Furthermore, through its nine-dash line, China claims the entire South China Sea, much to the ire of the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia, which are allies. China has constructed man-made islands in contested waters, including the Spratly Islands, which it annexed from the Philippines in 1996, and the Paracel Islands, which it annexed from Vietnam in 1976, in order to bolster its territorial assertions. At present, China maintains four sizable outposts on Mischief Reef, Woody Island, Fiery Cross Reef, and Subi Reef, all of which feature 10,000-foot runways. Additionally, significant military resources have been allocated to the islands, comprising hangars that can accommodate military transport, patrol, and combat aircraft, as well as anti-ship missiles.

At the same time, China and India have engaged in conflict over their contested Himalayan border. The region experienced a climax of tensions in June 2020 when Indian and Chinese forces engaged in combat using clubs and poles. Four Chinese and at least twenty Indian soldiers perished.

Xi has also escalated his rhetoric concerning Taiwan

A “historic mission” and a “unshakable commitment” were the terms used by Xi during the September Congress of the Chinese Communist Party to describe unification with the democratically governed island. Meanwhile, incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone, the airspace where Taiwanese authorities attempt to identify and control all aircraft, have been normalised by the PLA.

In the realm of economics, China has also experienced a notable surge in strength.

China has endeavoured to increase its economic influence via the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and is the most significant trading partner for over 120 nations worldwide. In addition to funding hundreds of special economic zones, or industrial regions intended to generate employment, China has financed physical infrastructure such as railways, harbours, and bridges throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe as part of the initiative, which is also known as the New Silk Road. As of the present moment, approximately 147 nations have ratified BRI initiatives or expressed interest in doing so.

China has reportedly already allocated an approximate sum of $1 trillion towards these endeavours and could potentially expend as much as $8 trillion throughout the project’s duration.

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