Esper’s Asia visit meant to appeal to allies

By Xin Qiang Source:Global Times Published: 2019/11/17 19:23:40

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper Photo: IC

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper's second visit to Asia in just over three months justifies the Pentagon's renewed military focus on the region with Washington's Indo-Pacific Strategy out to contain its only proclaimed rival - China. Esper kicked off his visit to South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam from Wednesday. Asia was the destination of Esper's first overseas trip after assuming office. 

With Washington's policy in the region clear, it tries to leverage its position with the help of the military. 

The situation in the Asia-Pacific region is complicated. China-US rivalry has a strong spillover effect and many countries have begun to adjust their China and US strategies. Esper may hope to appease US allies and try to ask them to dovetail their policies to Washington's ways. 

Problems among allies need to be resolved. US President Donald Trump's trade war is ruthless even to allies, many of whom are distancing themselves from Washington. In spite of being US treaty allies, the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea, who used to follow Washington's lead, have been estranged with the superpower. Washington may hope to give them warnings while striving to win them over. 

Since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office, his administration's US policy has not been warm toward Washington and ties have cooled.

Washington's relations with Seoul have not been smooth since South Korean President Moon Jae-in assumed office. Unlike his predecessors Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak, Moon is more prone to seeking a balanced strategy among great powers.

Esper utilized this trip to pressure South Korea to increase spending for US military presence there. According to Reuters, a South Korean lawmaker said US officials had demanded up to $5 billion a year, more than five times what Seoul agreed to pay this year under a one-year deal. It is another source of friction between the two countries.

Bangkok's relations with Washington have been somewhat detached, while its ties with Beijing have been significantly improving. Thailand has ordered China-made submarines and tanks, and has agreed to purchase landing ships from China, signaling mutual trust in politics and security between the two countries. 

As a military ally, Washington is reluctant to see closer Beijing-Bangkok ties and would pressure Thailand to avoid moving too close to China. 

In the meanwhile, some "carrots" would be given to Thailand in an attempt to gain its support.

On the other hand, rifts remain among some US allies. 

For example, tensions between Japan and South Korea have escalated, prompting the latter to make a decision to scrap the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which is crucial for the US to deal with North Korea's nuclear program, and monitor and guard against China. 

Esper is expected to coordinate relations between Tokyo and Seoul to prevent conflicts from affecting US strategic interests and urge the two countries to work together against Beijing. Esper told Moon on Friday he will try to persuade Japan to "smoothly" tackle disputes over the GSOMIA, according to South Korea's presidential office.

Among Southeast Asian countries, the one that wants to counter China along with the US is Vietnam. This country's conflicts with China stem from territorial disputes in the South China Sea and are also of historical genesis. Vietnam's location offers the US an anchor to meddle in the South China Sea.

Before the trip, Esper said on Twitter that he will "discuss areas of mutual concern, while seeking to strengthen defense cooperation & advance regional security and stability" with these countries.

The "mutual concern" refers to how to cope with a rising China. In US discourse, China's rise has been "aggressive," "disobeying rules" and "bullying." Washington may seek to have more military drills, arms sales to these countries, increasing its military presence in the region by engaging more in "freedom of navigation operations."

US military presence in the region does play an active role in promoting its safety and security in both traditional and non-traditional domains, such as combating pirates and providing humanitarian assistance.

However, US current military presence targets China, taking advantage of the existing regional disputes to stir up tensions by urging these small countries to confront Beijing. US warships have sailed near China's islands in South China Sea several times. The sails have even almost led to collision between US and Chinese warships, undermining regional security and safety. If Washington continues provocations, it will all the more undermine regional security and safety. 

After years of advances, China's capabilities have been significantly enhanced and the gap between China and the US has narrowed. 

Trump has been cranking up "America First." Its allies have realized that if they annoy China by doing the US bidding, Washington will not come to their rescue, letting them suffer the consequences. 

Therefore, these Asian allies are distancing themselves from the US, and drawing closer to China. They will decrease their cooperation with Washington, but increase cooperation with Beijing to maintain balanced bilateral relations.

The author is deputy director of the Center for US Studies at Fudan University.


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