At the beginning of the 21st century, the focus of international politics is increasingly shifting to the Asia-Pacific region. The geopolitical and economic processes taking place in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years, especially China’s and India’s emergence as leading global powers, the expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS, and the growing economic influence of ASEAN countries are perceived in Washington as a serious threat to its global ambitions. For example, in February 2022 the CIA put China at the top of the list of external threats to U.S. security in its annual analysis. The rising power of China, expansion of its economic and military influence in the world, refusal to sign agreements on limiting nuclear weapons and other offensive weapons, and also strengthening of cooperation with the Pacific island countries in the military sphere are considered by the White House as an attempt to weaken the U.S. position in Asia.
Increased Chinese influence in the APAC has forced the Americans to think about changing their strategy, which traditionally looked like bilateral U.S. alliances with its allies in the region. At the same time, the allies themselves were locked into Washington and were poorly connected to each other. Under the new doctrine of “Return to Asia”, the main goal of which was to restore and enhance the status and role of the United States in Asia, the Americans intend to support old alliances and create new ones.
At the same time, the Joe Biden Administration has noticeably invigorated its efforts to consolidate the anti-Chinese military forces in the region. Thus, after his conversation with CCP representative Yang Jiechi, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken confirmed that “the United States will work together with allies and partners to defend common values and interests. Our goal is to hold the PRC accountable for its actions that threaten stability in the APAC and undermine the rules-based international order”. To this end, Washington has decided to “breathe new life” into the so-called “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” (QUAD) between the United States, Australia, Japan and India, under which periodic military exercises, multilateral talks and meetings on regional security are planned.
However, the effectiveness of this “dialogue” is questioned by Western analysts. While Australia and Japan are already official allies of the United States, India appears to have no plans to become a close American partner, despite New Delhi’s growing security ties with Washington over the past five years. For India, membership in QUAD mainly offers guarantees of regional security and preservation of the balance of power in the region in the face of a marked increase in the influence of neighboring China.
In 2021, the United States, Great Britain and Australia announced another military alliance (AUKUS) in the APAC, which aims to build a nuclear submarine fleet in Australia with the support of Washington and London. In addition to an agreement to build eight submarines, the two sides agreed on military cooperation on autonomous weapons systems based on artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and computing, as well as on cybersecurity.
The very possibility of Canberra (Beijing’s strategic rival in the region) gaining access to nuclear technology is unacceptable to Beijing. Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region have expressed concerns that the construction of auxiliary nuclear facilities on Australian territory could be seen globally as a violation of U.S. principles under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
On June 24, 2022, the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Japan announced the creation of Partners in Blue Pacific (PBP), a regional cooperation organization, as an initiative to “cooperate more effectively to support the priorities of Pacific island nations”. Along with plans to support these countries socially and economically, PBP’s main objective is to ensure the safety and security of the countries by the maritime forces of the states participating in the five-party cooperation. Kurt Campbell, Coordinator on Indo-Pacific Policy of the White House, directly named increasing competition in the region and the need to curb China’s influence as the main reason for establishing PBP.
Based on statements by representatives of the U.S. administration, one can conclude that military cooperation with countries of the Asia-Pacific region will expand. For its part, China will be forced to take mirror measures to maintain its position in the region. As a result, the formation of blocs in the Asia-Pacific region and their confrontation risks reaching a new level of confrontation if a consensus between the two strongest states cannot be found. Thus, there is a dangerous tendency to militarize the region by combining the efforts of U.S. allies – Australia, New Zealand and Japan – with the gradual expansion of NATO presence in the APAC. Increased supplies of American weapons to Taiwan and plans to deploy medium-range missiles in Japan further increase military and political tensions in the region, the implementation of which could create a direct threat not only to the Chinese mainland, but also to the Russian Far East and Siberia.
The process of balancing U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific region is conditioned by the de facto transformation of China into the second global economic superpower, which is considered by Washington as a challenge to the key American strategic interests, primarily in the Asia-Pacific region. According to the forecasts of U.S. intelligence and think tanks in the West, by the end of the twenties China may not only become the largest economy in the world, but also surpass the U.S. in the amount of military spending. The Economic Intelligence Unit forecasts that by 2050 China could easily outstrip the U.S. economy by nearly two times. All of these calculations and forecasts pushed Washington to develop a whole set of political and economic measures to limit Beijing’s ability to expand its sphere of influence in the region. As part of this approach, the White House decided to return to B. Obama’s idea of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and resuscitate it at a new level.
On May 23, 2022 in Tokyo, Joe Biden launched a process of forming a new trade agreement with 12 countries of the Indo-Pacific region (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework) IPEF. Unlike the TPP, the new agreement includes only Asia-Pacific countries (Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam). IPEF is a framework of directions for developing dialogue on a wide range of issues, including commitments on clean energy in the region, decarbonization and infrastructure construction, monitoring of supply chain failures, etc.
According to leading Western economists, it is so far a rather amorphous initiative, as it contains no mention of preferential trade regimes and free trade zones. The supply chain failure monitoring system is an initiative aimed primarily at supporting the American economy, which is the ultimate consumer of Asian goods. Decarbonization or the “green economy” of the region is also not a pressing issue for most Asian countries because of their underdeveloped economic potential.
The U.S. initiative is just a list of areas for negotiation, as well as a tool for engaging partners in economic cooperation, with the ultimate goal of isolating China. It remains to be seen to what extent the countries of the region will agree to work for the Americans, because at the same time they will continue to participate in the “Chinese” Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and other projects and blocs. All this makes it doubtful that the U.S. initiative will be an effective tool to contain China.
In its Asia-Pacific policy, Washington is interested in active interaction with one of the most successful integration platforms in the ASEAN region, because it needs it to maintain security in the APAC, to deepen economic integration and to create a counterweight to Chinese influence. It is no coincidence that six of the ten members of the Association are IPEF members.
For its part, open support for the U.S. strategy in the region does not meet current ASEAN priorities and objectives. ASEAN leaders have developed a conviction that U.S. policies are becoming less predictable, creating tensions and increasing the risks of clashes and trade conflicts. Since ASEAN states are economically highly dependent on China and rely on U.S. support and intervention in security matters, ASEAN countries continue to use their favorite tactic of “risk hedging” and cooperate on various issues with both Beijing and Washington, trying not to choose between them and seeking their own way of development based on the concept of ASEAN centrality.
At the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh in November 2022, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen explicitly said that “the country’s foreign policy line is that we do not support one country against another and do not choose between them”. He was fully supported by Vietnamese Prime Minister Phḁm Minh Chinh, saying that Hanoi always chooses negotiation between negotiation and confrontation, always chooses dialogue between dialogue and conflict and always chooses cooperation between cooperation and competition.
In general, the successful economic development of the Association as an association was largely due to “middle-power diplomacy”. Therefore, amid the ongoing confrontation between the United States and China and the unwillingness to join one of the conflicting parties, the ASEAN countries intend to continue pursuing a policy of involving other major players from other regions of the world in regional processes, by expanding various trade and economic dialogues and platforms. An illustrative example of this neutral policy was the negative attitude of the ASEAN states to the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia. Only Singapore has imposed sanctions.