A defense agreement likely to deepen Chinese rancor
By David Pierson and Olivia Wang
Ever since members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization sprang into action to help Ukraine try to thwart Russia’s invasion last year, China has warned about a similar U.S.-led security alliance forming in Asia that would seek to hobble Beijing’s ambitions and provoke a confrontation.
President Joe Biden’s Camp David summit on Friday with the leaders of Japan and South Korea most likely reinforces Beijing’s perception. The talks saw Japan and South Korea put aside their historical animosities to forge a defense pact with the United States aimed at deterring Chinese and North Korean aggression.
Biden, who met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea, sought to emphasize at a news conference that the summit was not “anti-China.” But Beijing will almost certainly find Biden’s assertion unpersuasive. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has accused the United States of leading Western countries in the “all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China.”
“It is appropriate to say that the Camp David summit is possibly a starting shot for a new cold war,” Lu Chao, an expert on Korean Peninsula issues with the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, told the Communist Party newspaper, the Global Times, on Friday.
The Camp David agreement requires the United States, Japan and Korea to hold annual talks, expand joint military exercises, and establish a three-way hotline for crisis communications. In a statement, the countries also criticized China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea and reaffirmed the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
The language on Taiwan, which could be read as a warning to Beijing not to attempt to take the island by force, will most likely rankle Chinese leaders for drawing Japan and South Korea closer into a dispute that has traditionally been restricted to the United States, China and Taiwan. Just this past week, China’s defense minister, Li Shangfu, visited Moscow and warned against “playing with fire” when it came to Taiwan. He added that any effort to “use Taiwan to contain China” would “surely end in failure.”
The Camp David agreement follows a string of moves by the Biden administration that Beijing views as hostile. Those include a clampdown on China’s access to advanced chip technology; a three-way security agreement with Australia and Britain; the strengthening of the so-called Quad grouping of the United States, India, Australia and Japan; and an increased U.S. military presence in the Philippines.
As the United States, Japan and South Korea have drawn closer, China has responded largely by doubling down on the strategy that has been a source of concern to Washington and its allies in the region.
China has been holding joint military exercises with Russia, notably on Japan’s doorstep and near Alaska. It has pressed its claim over Taiwan with a steady increase of military pressure, including by launching a round of air and naval drills on Saturday. It has been engaging in increasingly provocative behavior in the South China Sea.
In a possible sign that tensions could escalate further in the region, Japan said Friday that it scrambled fighter jets to track two Russian patrol aircraft seen flying between the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, where Russia and China were holding joint naval exercises.
A day earlier, 11 Chinese and Russian naval ships, including destroyers, were spotted sailing between the southern islands of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture, northeast of Taiwan. China has increasingly concentrated military drills on Taiwan’s east coast facing the Pacific Ocean as part of an “all-around encirclement” strategy aimed at demonstrating how the island can be choked off from outside help.
“Sending 11 ships in a joint patrol with Russia close to Okinawa is either a response to the Camp David agreement, or an explanation for why Tokyo and Seoul are strengthening their own defense capabilities and alliances,” said Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore and a former U.S. Defense Department official on China.
“Deterrence is increasingly hard to come by in northeast Asia, so I fully expect all the parties to redouble their respective efforts,” he added.
China indicated that the joint air and naval drills around Taiwan on Saturday were in response to a recent visit to the United States by Taiwan’s vice president, Lai Ching-te. China has objected to even brief stopovers in the United States by Taiwanese officials.The exercises were just as likely to be directed at the United States, which Beijing has openly criticized for its support of Taiwan.
Beijing has often warned Tokyo and Seoul not to be drawn into the Taiwan issue, depicting Washington as a puppet master manipulating its allies. In an editorial Wednesday, the Global Times likened South Korea to a “kindergarten child receiving a sticker from their teacher” by agreeing to attend the summit at Camp David. That excitement, the editorial said, should instead be replaced with “a sense of deep trepidation and caution.”
China has also invoked ethnicity to try to drive a wedge between the sides. Last month, Wang Yi, the country’s top diplomat, warned Japan and South Korea that “no matter how yellow you dye your hair, or how sharp you make your nose, you’ll never turn into a European or American.”
Chinese analysts expressed skepticism that Seoul and Tokyo can set aside problems in their relationship stemming from Japan’s brutal, decadeslong occupation of the Korean Peninsula in the first part of the 20th century.
“Their relations still face many barriers,” said Zhao Minghao, a professor at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University. “Beijing will on one hand express worry and dissatisfaction, but on the other hand, continue observing” for cracks in the alliance.
Beijing has dangled economic incentives as recently as this month by increasing the flow of Chinese outbound tourists to Japan. The strategy underscores the economic heft of China, which is the top trading partner for both Japan and South Korea. It is also a reminder of the possibility that China might retaliate with economic measures. In 2017, China boycotted many South Korean businesses and shunned its K-pop stars after Seoul allowed the United States to deploy an antimissile system in South Korea.
To China’s chagrin, Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought Japan and South Korea closer to NATO. Kishida paid a surprise visit to Ukraine in March and met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Japan has also supplied Ukraine with 100 military trucks.
That has deepened fears in Beijing of a so-called mini-NATO in Asia, though Friday’s agreement falls short of mirroring the trans-Atlantic alliance in a crucial way. The Camp David pact requires the United States, Japan and South Korea to treat any security threat to one as a threat to all and to respond by holding mutual discussions. That is far less stringent than NATO’s Article 5, which requires members to “take action” if one is attacked.
Now, China will be watching for signs that the alliance will expand, drawing in countries such as the Philippines, said Song Zhongping, a commentator in Beijing who is a former military officer. Song called that a “worst-case scenario” for China because it would create an “Indo-Pacific NATO.”
Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based scholar who focuses on U.S.-China ties, said the new alliance should not overly threaten China, especially if it was more defensive in nature.
“We believe that Japan and South Korea understand the big picture and won’t jointly challenge China because they are not able to,” Shen said. “There is no need for China to worry because they are smart. They know they cannot defeat China.”