China-US relations

US urged to counter Chinese aggression with strong military partnerships in Asia

  • Former defence secretary believes US must continue to work with Asian allies
  • Beijing seems to have concluded it is ‘China’s turn’ to dominate the region
PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 October, 2018, 7:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 October, 2018, 10:24pm

Former US defence secretary Ash Carter has urged the United States to strengthen its military partnerships in Asia to counter what he described as China’s isolationist and confrontational approach in the region and around the world.

“In the Taiwan Strait, on the Korean peninsula, in cyberspace, in global trade – at nearly every turn, China’s leaders have chosen isolation over integration and confrontation over inclusion,” Carter wrote in a report by the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Carter is a director of the centre.

“We must continue to invest in the innovative systems and ideas required to counter China’s military capabilities. We must have the quality and quantity of forces necessary to prevent Chinese aggression if we can, and counter it if we must,” he wrote in the report which looks at America’s strategy in Asia.

“We must also continue to build stronger military partnerships in the region, with established allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia as well as newer partners such as Vietnam and India.”

If the US stepped back, Carter said, China would seek to replace the US-led network with its own initiatives, such as the belt and road strategy and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), as part of its efforts to extend political influence in the region.

This would be hamper US interests, according to Carter, who was the last defence secretary of the Obama administration.

Recalling his experience, going back to the 1990s, of interacting with Chinese officials in the defence ministry, Carter said Beijing seemed to have concluded it was now China’s turn after 70 years of US dominance in Asia.

His report, which was published on Thursday, comes amid escalating tensions between the world’s two largest economies, following the delivery earlier this month by US Vice-President Mike Pence of what many observers see as the current US administration’s first comprehensive China strategy.

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Pence accused Beijing of aggressive moves against American warships in the South China Sea, of predatory economic behaviour against its neighbours, and of trying to meddle in the upcoming US midterm elections.

Carter said recent tariff measures by the Trump administration were “a predictable over-correction” to US trade problems with China, as Washington had no “trade playbook” with Beijing.

But Carter said Trump had made a strategic mistake in quitting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal spearheaded by Obama that interconnected 12 nations – while excluding China – in an intricate set of trade rules meant to reduce regional dependence on Beijing.

The decision not only reduced opportunities for the US, it also opened a door for China, he said.

“It was a missed opportunity to strengthen our strategic relationships in Asia by helping our friends and allies in the region counter the enormous economic leverage China has over them – leverage it is increasingly willing to use to bend the region to its will in the security realm.”

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Trump has never hidden his preference for one-on-one relations over multilateral systems, but Carter said such an approach was “erroneous” and that it would “fritter away” America’s key advantages over China, particularly the interlocking relationships it has with regional allies and partners.

“It would allow China to do what it does best: marshal its combined economic, political and military muscle that only a statist dictatorship can wield against smaller nations, picking them off and their businesses one-by-one,” Carter said.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration rolled out its new Indo-Pacific strategy as a means of reshaping America’s regional approach. But subsequent moves by Trump have left allies and rivals wondering if the US was serious about making it happen.

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The US president has issued repeated threats to several regional allies of tariffs or sanctions, as well as moving from confrontation to handshakes in his dealings with North Korea. Political and military relations have also improved recently between Washington and Taiwan, a self-ruled island Beijing vows to take back by force if necessary.

Carter said the Trump administration should have confidence in the security network in Asia.

“The Asian security network has served our interests well, and it can continue – but only if the United States continues to believe in it. Without US leadership and support, the network will be replaced by another, parallel network China is seeking to erect,” he said.

“The AIIB, a potential rival to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, would not match the high standards of the World Bank and IMF in relation to governance, environmental and other safeguards – and the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is likely to extend China’s political influence more than it extends actual property,” Carter said.