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Are US military drills in Asia-Pacific a veiled attempt to curb Chinese power?

Recent US military activity in the Asia-Pacific is on the rise, including drills in the Philippines and South Korea as well as a submarine deal struck between the US and Australia. China has, meanwhile, accused the US of encircling the country. FRANCE 24 speaks with an expert to shed light on the mounting tensions.

With tensions rising in the Asia-Pacific, FRANCE 24 talked to Marc Julienne, head of China research at the Centre for Asian Studies of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) to shed light on the current situation.

FRANCE 24: China has expressed concerns over US drilling in the Asia-Pacific as well as the recent deal brokered by AUKUS (the Australia-UK-US alliance), which would see the US supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Tuesday criticised the US for maintaining a “Cold War mentality”. Do you find the criticism valid, and is the US looking to “contain” China?

Marc Julienne: Chinese President Xi Jinping and his newly appointed Foreign Minister Qin Gang both used severe language last week with regard to the US, condemning it for preserving a “Cold War mentality” and, for the first time, accusing it of deploying a “containment” strategy vis-à-vis China. This is quite new in China’s political discourse, and while we can hear echoes of that in some American publications, the terminology is absent from US public discourse.

The term “containment” is, in itself, quite controversial because it dates back to the Cold War era, the context of which completely differs from our current period. I can’t say whether the US is trying to “contain” China or not, but we can nevertheless observe external factual changes: On the one hand, China is looking to break up the current world order and to conquer new territories as it gains more power. The country is aggressively expanding its military might, whether it is on the Himalayan border, in the South China Sea, East China Sea or regarding Taiwan. On the other hand, the US is seeking to maintain the current world order by reinforcing its security measures.

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What we need to understand is that such actions are rarely one-sided and do not solely concern the US and China. Other countries in the Asia-Pacific have also started to perceive China as a clear threat and have asked for the US to ramp up its forces in the region. Even the Philippines, which has since long maintained a rather ambivalent relationship with China and the US, has recently welcomed the addition of four US military bases.

To what extent do the recent US engagements in the Asia-Pacific reflect a shift in focus from Europe despite the war in Ukraine? Is the US leaving Europe to fend for itself in order to concentrate on China?

I don’t see that happening in the near future. The US has been the main arms supplier to Ukraine since the war broke out early last year and it has very recently pledged additional military aid to Ukraine. For now I don’t see the US disengaging from Europe. Nevertheless, worries over a potential US retreat from the region are quite legitimate. Countries in Europe, especially those in the centre and in the east with disputed territories, would not be able to fend for themselves in the case of an invasion. And such fears have been stoked high since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Moreover, we have to remember that when the Ukraine war broke out, many were worried about the opposite case – that the US would withdraw its military bases from the Indo-Pacific region to focus on Russia and Ukraine. But that has clearly not been the case.

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China’s Xi Jinping has vowed to “advance the process of reunification” with Taiwan and has not ruled out achieving this goal by force. North Korea, meanwhile, has launched several ballistic missiles threatening its southern neighbour. What role will Europe play if war breaks out in the region?

[Contrary to popular belief], Europe’s role may not be as clear-cut as it first appears. Since war is impossible to predict we can only hypothesise. In the unfortunate event that China tries to take Taiwan by force, Europe would first look to the US for leadership, whose intervention is not guaranteed. The US has strategically maintained an ambiguous attitude over the past few decades on whether or not it would provide military support in case of a Chinese invasion of the island, and Europe’s stance largely depends on that.

If the US is to intervene and lead a coalition with Japanese and Korean forces, then Europe would presumably show support as it condemns all unilateral changes to the status quo, a position that the United Nations also shares. The EU is likely to apply sanctions on China, similar to that imposed on Russia over the Ukraine war. Whether or not Europe would send troops, however, is an entirely different question.