CHINA / DIPLOMACY
Blinken, Austin embark Asian trips with China agenda on minds
US faces widening chasm with India, while SE Asian countries difficult to sway
Published: Jul 28, 2021 12:33 AM Updated: Jul 28, 2021 12:35 AM
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Carrying urgent missions to seek alliances as pivots to further implement the US' Indo-Pacific strategy, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin embarked on tours of India and Southeast Asia on Tuesday - one day after US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman's visit to China. 

Experts said the two senior US officials' visits, which aim to build and strengthen a military and diplomatic ambush of China are a "slap in the face" against White House claim that the US is not seeking an anti-China coalition and would become "unaccomplished missions" as most Asian countries will not choose sides between China and the US, since the carrots the US has promised are not comparable to the interests they would lose if they yield to Washington's pressure at the costs of ties with Beijing.   

Austin met Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen in Singapore on Tuesday as both leaders reaffirmed defense ties and expressed hope for further cooperation in areas such as cyber defense and strategic communications, The Strait Times reported. 

This is the first trip by a top member of the Biden administration to Southeast Asia, and Austin's second to the Asia-Pacific region, which he referred to as Pentagon's "priority theater of operations." 

In a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, Austin said that China's claims and actions in the Indo-Pacific "threaten the sovereignty of nations around the region while Washington is committed to building partnerships that guarantee the vital interest of all nations."

No matter how many fancy words the US uses to beautify its role in Asia and hypes the "China threat," its purpose in seeking anti-China coalition is evident and it will raise the alarm of Asian countries, analysts said. 

Singapore, though not a treaty ally of the US, has burgeoning military relationship with Washington, and it has played as a significant role as a coordinator in the ASEAN bloc, experts said 

The US has worked hard to pull Singapore to its side in the hope that the island city-state could help strengthen ASEAN's solidarity in being tough on China, Chen Xiangmiao, an assistant research fellow at National Institute for South China Sea Studies, told the Global Times.

However, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated in March it will be impossible for Singapore to choose between the US and China, given the extensive ties it has with both superpowers, adding that many other countries are in a similar situation.

After Singapore, Austin will fly to Vietnam and the Philippines. The Pentagon chief will seek to emphasize the importance Washington places on fortifying ties in the region while pushing back against China, Reuters reported. 

For Austin, lobbying the Philippines and Vietnam, two claimants on the South China Sea issues, on military base use and upgrading their maritime facilities relating to affairs on the South China Sea issues may top his agenda, Chen told the Global Times.

During his trip to the Philippines, Austin may reiterate that an armed attack on a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea would prompt a response from Washington under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, and he would also discuss details of the Visiting Forces Agreement, without which the US-Philippines alliance cannot function, Chen noted. 

The Visiting Forces Agreement, which was signed in 1998 and is one of the pillars of US-Philippines military cooperation, was terminated in February 2020 by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. The Philippine government has since repeatedly extended its notice amid Manila defense and military establishment pressure to maintain the pact. 

"Austin may offer to update the Philippines' costal escort vessels, help with military trainings and offer weapons in exchange for the US' wider use of the Philippines' military bases," Chen said, noting that similar request to use military bases may come up during Austin's visit to Vietnam.

The US has also invested more in the security and military fields in Vietnam in recent years. By helping update Vietnam's patrol boats and vessels, the US wants to extend its military cooperation with Vietnam on information sharing and joint military drills as well as backing Vietnam to confront China on South China Sea issues, Chen noted. 

The US Pentagon chief's aim to boost US military presence around China on the first Island Chain is too obvious to disguise, experts said, noting that Austin may be disappointed that not all countries in the region would be easily coaxed. 

It is impossible for the Philippines to confront China as the US wishes, which Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly stated in the past few years, experts noted. 

Vietnam, on the other hand, may in some way echo the US' appeal, a practice that Hanoi has been adopting to increase its bargaining chips with China on the South China Sea issues, Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times on Tuesday. 

"Vietnam may take some actions to exert pressure on China and it may be more inclined to tilt toward the US, including strengthening military ties," Wu said, adding that it will not stand entirely on the opposite side of China. 

 Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, said that for the past 30 years, the US has been sowing chaos across the world. Wherever it goes, it created disputes and disasters. "By merely checking the fact sheets for the past decades, Southeast Asian countries know well whether the US has played a constructive or destructive role in maintaining international order," Li noted. 

Facing disputes 

While Austin is on his Southeast Asia trip, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to visit India where he will meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Wednesday, his first visit to the world's largest democracy as secretary of state under the Biden administration, Reuters reported. 

Such an arrangement, which closely follows Sherman's visit to China on Sunday and Monday, is seen as a sign that the US will spend more efforts to rope in India to contain China and play the "India card," analysts said.

While the US hopes to seek support from India on a number of issues, the South Asian country may not be as cooperative, observers noted, given the widening chasm between the two countries concerning Afghanistan, vaccine distribution and human rights issues. 

One of the major rifts between New Delhi and Washington is the US decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, which has left India's investment in the region for the past 20 years hanging in the air, Long Xingchun, a senior research fellow with the Academy of Regional and Global Governance at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the Global Times.

What's more, India is increasingly dissatisfied with the US on the COVID-19 vaccine, as the US has been hoarding doses while Indians suffer from vaccine shortages. Although the US might be showing kindness by offering more vaccines to the epidemic-battered country, it seems that the gesture would more often than not turn out to be an empty promise, Wu said.

On top of the vaccine friction, the White House has been bugging India with "human rights concerns" after the Modi government introduced a Citizenship Amendment Bill in December 2019 that Western voices deemed "anti-Muslim discrimination."

Dean Thompson, the State Department's acting assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs, confirmed that Blinken's trip to India will also raise human rights issues.

The visits came one day after Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi marked the bottom lines of China-US ties during his meeting with US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Tianjin on Monday.

"The US has always talked and acted differently on issues regarding China, to the extent that it has become a norm. No one in China believes in what the US says," Wu told the Global Times on Tuesday. 

He added that the US understands the bottom lines that Wang elaborated during his meeting with Sherman, but the US will not restrict itself to that, as many issues brought up by the Chinese side are fundamental goals that the White House has been pursuing, and they will not abandon them easily, Wu noted. 


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