Last week, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin toured a number of countries in the Asia-Pacific region (APR), visiting Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam. The tour's peculiarity was the Pentagon chief's having outlined the milestones of Washington's new strategy in this direction pivotal to the United States. Thus, under Barack Obama's democratic administration it was about America's politically correct shift towards Asia, while that of President Joe Biden has completely done away with one-time politesse. From now on, we are talking about a full-scale "integrated deterrence" of China, which the Americans are actively engaging their APR partners in.
Austin's tour to the countries of Southeast Asia began with Alaska, which the Pentagon head deems of strategic importance for projecting power into the Indo-Pacific region (IPR). However, it is not very convenient for Washington to "project force" from a distance of 7 thousand kilometers, and therefore, as Austin himself says, America relies on an irreplaceable network of its allies in this part of the world. According to Pentagon strategists, this "network" should include those APR countries that are at least somewhat dissatisfied with China. And those do exist due to Beijing's aggressive policy of promoting its interests.
While in Singapore, Austin discussed prospects for expanding military-technical cooperation (including the sale of F-35 fighter jets), and also pointed out the "importance of promoting the rules-based order." An order based on rules, not on international law, we emphasize. This thesis, as regards the APR situation, was further developed during the Pentagon chief's speech at the Singapore branch of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). It was perhaps for the first time that a new American vision of the region's future was clearly voiced, which the White House associates with the need to create a system of "integrated deterrence" of the PRC.
This approach involves the use of all the military and civilian tools, engagement of existing opportunities and creation of new ones, as well as their deployment in a new network form in the deepening partnership with US friends. Washington sees Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam as its allies in Southeast Asia, among others. Moreover, it was said without any hints whom the United States offers its South Asian partners to integrate and be friends against, and Austin implicitly named Beijing.
It should be noted that the "integrated deterrence" concept for China presented by the head of the Pentagon in Singapore confirms that Joe Biden's administration inherited Donald Trump's tough confrontational course against China laid out earlier. However, Beijing sees a point in Washington's gamble a short distance from the Chinese borders. A recent publication in The Global Times, which is structurally part of People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's official mouthpiece, is a clear proof of this: "It is difficult for Washington to leverage Southeast Asian countries in terms of economics, diplomacy, and the fight against COVID-19. The only thing Washington can offer is security and defense cooperation." According to the Chinese analyst quoted by the outlet, the United States "has seized upon the concerns of some Southeast Asian countries about the rise of China and hyped up the 'China threat' theory, thus tightening the relations with these countries."
The fact that the United States did not just "shift towards Asia", but declared a real war on China, is evidenced by American officials' frequent voyages to the IPR. In March, Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken paid visits to South Korea and Japan; in July, Mr. Blinken visited India, and this week he will also take part in five virtual ministerial meetings related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Moreover, Washington is indiscreet about the purpose of all these meetings – to create an anti-Chinese coalition in the region. The United States is experienced in this sphere: it is not the first year that a group called QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) comprising the USA, Australia, India and Japan, has been operating in the IPR, albeit without real success.
It is no secret that the United States is extremely afraid of China's expanding might, both economic and military. It is not by chance that President Biden, speaking last week to the office of US Director of National Intelligence, said that Chinese President Xi Jinping was striving to turn his country into the world's most powerful military power by the mid-2040s. "He [Xi Jinping] is absolutely serious about turning his country into the world's most powerful military establishment and the largest economy by the mid 2040s. This is a reality," the head of the White House said.
Today, relations between Washington and Beijing have become stiff, so to say, at a point of precarious balance. The United States is clearly afraid to cross the critical line separating mere competition and confrontation from a full-scale conflict with China. The statements by American officials are also evidence of this. Washington and Beijing are trying to turn their troubled relations into a civilized rivalry, i.e. to work out a playbook, to identify the red lines, areas of potential cooperation and gentlemanly communication. As State Department spokesman Ned Price has recently stated, some "protective barriers" are needed so that competition does not turn into a conflict. The Pentagon shares much the same position.
As for Russia's stance on the issue, Moscow invariably criticizes the US efforts to draw the countries of the region into poorly disguised anti-Chinese alliances. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said when addressing the Far Eastern Federal University last month, "the Asia-Pacific Region has become an arena of tough geopolitical struggle. What the West is promoting here is not the principles underlying the UN, which are universally accepted by all countries, but its rules in the form of what our US colleagues refer to as 'Indo-Pacific Strategies' designed to erode the central role of ASEAN in the regional architecture, to engage NATO and build a coalition to contain China."