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US Strengthens Alliances to Confront Emboldened China

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The winds of war are rising in the Pacific. With tremors of Cold War stirring, an ironclad alliances of the United States, Japan and South Korea stands united against an aggressively ascendant China.

Last week’s historic Indo-Pacific Dialogue in Washington marks a pivotal moment – the day the democracies of the region locked arms to resist autocracy’s march. Their message rings clear: No single nation will dominate the Pacific, now or in our shared future.

Speaking with one voice, the allied leaders declared a new era of unity against gathering Chinese threats. Forged at a crucial juncture, their strengthened partnership aims to counter China’s provocations and defend their interests in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Speaking with one voice, the leaders of Japan, South Korea, and the United States declare a new era of unity against gathering Chinese threats. Their strengthened trilateral partnership, forged at a pivotal moment in history, aims to counter China’s aggressive actions across the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

This bold declaration comes on the heels of last week’s historic Indo-Pacific Dialogue which laid bare a looming Cold War. Its glaring subtext: China’s unstoppable rise must be stopped here and now.

The Dialogue underscores rapidly shifting geopolitics in East Asia that have escalated tensions between the United States, South Korea, Japan and an increasingly assertive China. While the US and its allies grow concerned about China’s expanding economic, military and political power, China sees the bolstered trilateral cooperation as an attempt to contain its ascent.

This dynamic was on full display during the inaugural Indo-Pacific Dialogue held in Washington on January 5. The meeting marked an important evolution in trilateral cooperation between the US, South Korea and Japan, going beyond just coordinating on North Korea to addressing broader regional security issues.

The dialogue was established after the three countries held a summit at Camp David on January 5, where they agreed to expand security cooperation in the face of China’s aggressive actions in the region.

The joint statement issued after the Indo-Pacific Dialogue specifically called out China’s “dangerous and escalatory behavior” in the South China Sea. It opposed China’s attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force and reiterated commitment to international law and freedom of navigation. The statement also expressed concern about peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, affirming the importance of a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.

Experts pointed out the significance of South Korea overtly joining the US and Japan in countering China’s actions beyond the Korean Peninsula. This represented a shift for Seoul, which had previously been more focused on North Korea and reluctant to directly criticize Beijing. But South Korea’s president Yoon Suk-yeol has aligned more closely with Washington and Tokyo since taking office in 2022 and repairing relations with Japan.

The strengthened trilateral cooperation is seen as a way to deter further aggressive actions by China through enhanced coordination between the US alliances with South Korea and Japan. With their economies deeply intertwined with China, experts said presenting a united front would send an important signal to Beijing and boost deterrence.

China predictably reacted negatively to the Indo-Pacific Dialogue, seeing it as an attempt to form an exclusive, anti-China bloc. Chinese state media accused the US of trying to stoke conflict between China and its neighbors in order to maintain dominance in the region.

But the US and its allies have pressing concerns about China’s recent actions that demand a response. In the South China Sea, China continues to aggressively assert its territorial claims and militarize islands it built in disputed waters. This flouts international law and directly challenges claims by Southeast Asian countries. Freedom of navigation through the critical trade route has increasingly been threatened.

China also continues to apply economic and military pressure on Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory. Its warplanes frequently breach Taiwan’s air defense zone in an attempt to wear down its resistance. Many worry that Beijing may eventually attempt to forcibly take control of Taiwan, sparking a major crisis with the US.

On the Korean Peninsula, Chinese military aircraft have also recklessly entered South Korea’s air defense zone near a submerged South Korean reef claimed by both countries. South Korea responded by scrambling fighter jets. The incident illustrated China’s willingness to aggressively push territorial claims against its neighbors.

Beyond specific incidents, there are deeper concerns about how China plans to use its growing power. Under Xi Jinping, China has become more authoritarian. Xi removed term limits and centralized power. The clampdown on Hong Kong and mass detentions of Uyghurs demonstrate Xi’s assertive posture. There are fears that an emboldened China may seek to redraw borders throughout the region.

The US and its allies hope by enhancing trilateral defense cooperation, they can deter Chinese aggression and encourage Beijing to act as a responsible stakeholder in upholding international rules and norms. But given China’s aggressive actions and the nationalist posturing of Xi and other leaders, experts warn that managing tensions with Beijing will remain a major challenge for the region in the years ahead.

The Indo-Pacific Dialogue showed the United States, South Korea and Japan are prepared to deepen strategic alignment in responding to China’s rise. But some wonder whether their cooperation is too little, too late given how much China has expanded its economic, diplomatic and military power.

For South Korea, resisting Chinese aggression requires overcoming its complicated history with China. Fighting alongside the US in the Korean War left a lasting wariness of antagonizing its massive neighbor. South Korea also became economically intertwined with China through trade and tourism. This made Seoul cautious about joining any anti-China coalition.

But under President Yoon, South Korea has shaken off its reticence, alarmed by China’s economic coercion against South Korean interests because of Seoul’s embrace of US missile defense systems. South Korea also faces direct territorial disputes with China over islands and reefs. Strengthening deterrence through the trilateral partnership has become a priority.

Japan is also locking arms with the US and South Korea after waking up to China’s threatening actions near the Senkaku Islands which it administers but China claims and frequently sends ships into the area. Japanese see the aggression as part of China’s long-term strategy to dominate the region and likely make a move on Taiwan next.

Yet both South Korea and Japan rely heavily on trade with China, so economic blowback from overly confronting China is a concern. Meanwhile Xi Jinping has displayed a defiant posture, leaving little room for compromise. He appears driven by a nationalist mandate to restore China to what he sees as its rightful historic role as the dominant power in Asia. These competing pressures will test the allies’ unity.

For its part, the United States is trying to restore credibility among allies and partners after former President Trump distanced the country from traditional commitments. But its ability to serve as a counterweight to China has come under question after years of political dysfunction. The storming of the US Capitol and America’s domestic turmoil have fueled doubts about the strength of its democracy and political system.

Reasserting US leadership abroad requires shoring up democracy at home and avoiding moves that alienate allies. The Indo-Pacific Dialogue showed the Biden administration’s focus on rebuilding partnerships to maintain balance against China. But questions remain about America’s capacity for global leadership in a new era of great power competition.

What’s clear is that the geopolitical landscape in Asia has been fundamentally altered by China’s rise. Managing tensions between the established power of the US and the rising ambition of China will be the defining challenge for the region. Neither conflict nor appeasement will produce stability. Finding a way to integrate China into the international order while dissuading further assertion of its claims is the precarious path forward.

The US, South Korea and Japan have laid down a marker with the Indo-Pacific Dialogue. They aim to shape China’s behavior through combined deterrence and diplomacy. But leaders also left the door open for engagement, calling for dialogue with North Korea and peaceful resolution of the situation around Taiwan. Ultimately peace can only be assured through responsible behavior by all powers. Any lasting regional order must be built on recognized rules and mutual restraint.

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