East Asia becomes chessboard in face-off between reemerging blocs

Posted on : 2022-05-26 17:13 KST Modified on : 2022-05-26 17:13 KST
With South Korea, the US, and Japan on one side and North Korea, China, and Russia on the other, the encampments are hearkening back to the Cold War era
US President Joe Biden speaks after returning to the White House on May 24 following visits to South Korea and Japan. (AP/Yonhap News)
US President Joe Biden speaks after returning to the White House on May 24 following visits to South Korea and Japan. (AP/Yonhap News)

US President Joe Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan has prompted the Indo-Pacific region — the main battleground of the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing — to turn into a veritable chessboard where South Korea, the US, and Japan are facing off against North Korea, China, and Russia. In response to South Korea, the US, and Japan’s move to encircle China, rein in Russia, and counter North Korea’s missiles and nuclear program, North Korea, China, and Russia illustrated their determination to retaliate in their own uncompromising way.

In other words, the dismal bloc confrontation of the Cold War era has returned.

On Tuesday, following Biden’s departure from Tokyo, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will be officially visiting eight South Pacific countries including the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and Timor-Leste for 10 days from Thursday to June 4. Wang will be hosting the second foreign ministers’ meeting between China and Pacific Island countries, the first having been held in October of last year.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Wang’s trip “aims to deepen the friendly and cooperative relationship between China and relevant countries, and contributes to peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific.”

Through his trip to South Korea and Japan from Friday to Tuesday, Biden set up a multilayered net of encirclement around China, the US’ “sole competitor” in both economic and security terms. Starting with his visit to a Samsung Electronics chip plant on Friday, as well as through his summit with South Korea on Saturday and his summit with Japan on Monday, Biden strengthened the US’ relationship with its two allies in the Asia-Pacific region, also launching the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), an economic cooperation framework that aims to hold China in check, on Monday.

On Tuesday, Biden also held a summit of the Quad, a security partnership among the US, Japan, India and Australia. In response, China is moving to strengthen its ties with countries located in the Pacific region, previously considered the “front yard” of the US, so as to break through the US’ net of encirclement.

Back in April, China had signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, establishing the grounds on which it could deploy its military in the region.

China’s response didn’t stop there. China and Russia also made a show as if they were militarily challenging the US for announcing its intention to strengthen the extended deterrence in South Korea and Japan through Biden’s Northeast Asia trip.

Russia’s Tupolev Tu-95 and China’s Xian H-6 were seen flying in the KADIZ. (provided by the Japanese Ministry of Defense)
Russia’s Tupolev Tu-95 and China’s Xian H-6 were seen flying in the KADIZ. (provided by the Japanese Ministry of Defense)

While the Quad summit was happening on Tuesday, China and Russia flew six bombers into South Korea’s air defense identification zone over the vicinity of Dokdo in the East Sea. The planes identified — Russia’s Tupolev Tu-95 and China’s Xian H-6 — are strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

The defense ministries of China and Russia both declared that the maneuver was a “routine joint strategic air patrol.”

Nevertheless, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi held an emergency press conference around 7:25 pm on the same day where he said, “We believe the fact that this action was taken during the Quad summit makes it more provocative than in the past,” and characterized the maneuvers by China and Russian planes as “intended to threaten.”

North Korea made its own show of force the following day. On Wednesday morning, a day after Biden’s departure from Japan, Pyongyang launched three missiles including an intercontinental ballistic missile towards the East Sea.

The White House as well as the US Indo-Pacific Command immediately released statements denouncing North Korea’s provocation, and South Korea also convened a National Security Council meeting to discuss how to respond.

Meanwhile, Kishi held an early morning press conference, during which he issued a more forceful warning against Pyongyang, saying, “[Japan] will strive to fundamentally strengthen its defense capabilities, including its ability to attack enemy bases.”

The problem is that this newly resurfaced bloc confrontation will only escalate moving forward. The most evident proof of the severity of the current crisis is China and Russia’s noncooperation on the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons.

During the crisis in 2017, when leaders of North Korea and the US attacked each other with harsh language, there was a consensus that the US, China, and Russia had to work together in order to solve the problem of North Korean nuclear weapons. But amid the intensifying strategic competition between Washington and Beijing as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China and Russia have remained silent on North Korea’s provocations this year, which already number 17.

The more China and Russia maintain their silence, the more inevitable it will be for South Korea’s Yoon Suk-yeol administration — a steadfast critic of the Moon Jae-in administration’s “balanced diplomacy” — to side with the US and for Japan to hasten its rearmament. Unfortunately, Russia and China are not in the position to ease their hard-line position against the US, as the country is attempting to squash them in the name of championing democracy against the rise of authoritarianism.

The US’ new China policy, which US State Secretary Antony Blinken will announce on Thursday, is something to pay attention to in the short run. The announcement is drawing interest in terms of what it will say regarding Washington’s principle of “strategic ambiguity” concerning Taiwan after Biden caused a stir on Monday by stating the US would defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion.

By Choi Hyun-june, Beijing correspondent; Kim So-youn, Tokyo correspondent; Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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