China-US tensions: new American defence chief calls on Japan and South Korea to team up in Indo-Pacific
- Soon after being sworn in, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin calls for Asian allies to strengthen military ties
- American maritime manoeuvres in the South China Sea continue despite change of administration in the US
In a call on Sunday, Austin told South Korean counterpart Suh Wook that close cooperation between the two allies was important, and the two sides “affirmed the importance of maintaining the rules-based international order, and agreed to enhance cooperation on shared threats”, the Pentagon said.
While Austin is believed to lack experience in the Indo-Pacific, he has pledged to focus strategically on China and Asia. In his confirmation hearing last week he said mending alliances and focusing strategically on China would be high on his agenda. The retired four-star army general and former commander of the US military effort in Iraq is the first African-American to serve as defence secretary.
Chinese observers said the calls suggested the Biden administration would seek to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the region through its alliance network.
Chen Xiangmiao, an associate research fellow with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, said Beijing could come under increasing pressure.
“The pressure may not be limited to the military sphere but could extend to China’s relations with its neighbours in Southeast Asia, which are now a high priority in its diplomatic strategy,” Chen said. “The South China Sea may also become an issue in China’s bilateral relationships.”
Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military commentator, said Washington may seek the support of more countries to isolate China.
“It could target countries like Japan, South Korea, the UK and even Australia and India,” Song said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday said the US frequently sent aircraft and vessels into the South China Sea to “flex its muscles” and that this was “not conducive to peace and stability in the region”.
According to the SCS Probing Initiative, a Beijing-based think tank, a US Air Force reconnaissance aircraft left its base in South Korea and entered the South China Sea on Monday morning, while at least nine other American military aircraft were spotted over the South China Sea on Sunday.
“It can be expected that during the presence of the aircraft carrier Roosevelt in the South China Sea, all kinds of US military aircraft activities will continue,” the think tank said on Weibo, China’s Twitter.
Earlier on Saturday, Austin also spoke with British Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace and they “exchanged views on confronting strategic issues of mutual interest, including the Covid-19 response, concerns from a rising China, threats from Russia and ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan”, according to the Pentagon.
In a move that could fuel tensions in the region, Britain has agreed for its Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group to take part in a joint deployment with the US military this year. A joint declaration signed last week enables the deployment of US Marine Corps and navy personnel and equipment – including a detachment of F-35B Lightning II aircraft and USS The Sullivans guided-missile destroyer – as part of a combined carrier strike group to be led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, according to the Pentagon.
While details of the joint deployment are not clear, British defence officials, including former defence secretary Gavin Williamson, hinted earlier that the Queen Elizabeth would be deployed to Asia and the South China Sea.
In 2019, Williamson said the region would be where China was “developing its modern military capability and its commercial power”. The comments angered Beijing, which warned London not to interfere in the region and said the South China Sea “should not become a battleground for big power competition, or a sea full of roaming warships”.
Royal Navy amphibious assault ship the HMS Albion had sailed close to the China-claimed Paracel Islands in the contested waterway the previous year, a move Beijing called “a provocative action”.
Chen said while is was likely the US would try to boost its alliances to apply pressure on Beijing, it remained to be seen how successful the strategy would be. He gave the example of South Korea, which may refrain from pushing Beijing on the South China Sea, especially given that China is the largest trading partner and closest ally of the North.
Japan, however, saw China as a strategic rival and the waterway as a critical trade and energy supply route, so would be more likely to harden its position, he said.
“China will have to step up efforts to stabilise relations with its [Southeast Asian] neighbours while pushing forward negotiations on the South China Sea code of conduct, because on this issue it is the countries in the region that really matter,” Chen said.
The US has stepped up freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea in recent years to counter Beijing’s ambitions in the region, calling on allies to join it. Beijing has condemned the operations, saying they complicate the situation.