Two articles on the front page of the Washington Times reveal the dichotomy at work in the geopolitics of the western Pacific. Tom Howell Jr. and Jeff Mordock write about Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s seeking concrete security pledges from the Biden administration vis-à-vis China. Andrew Salmon’s piece notes that a survey conducted earlier this year showed that at least half of South Koreans “doubt that the U.S. will exercise its nuclear deterrence capabilities in the event of an emergency.” So, at the same time that the smaller nations of the western Pacific seek greater assurances about their security relationship with the United States, those same nations are fearful that the Biden administration will shrink from defending them against China and/or North Korea.
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Meanwhile, Japan and Australia have announced defense buildups and “overhauls,” in part because, in the words of a high-level Australian defense report, the U.S. is “no longer the unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific.” Even Taiwan has been raising defense spending and shifting to a strategy of denial against a possible Chinese attack or invasion.
All of this comes against the backdrop of a changing balance of power in the Indo-Pacific driven by China’s decades-long military buildup and the Biden administration’s refusal to shift U.S. policy in the western Pacific from competitive engagement to geopolitical containment. Howell and Mordock note in their article that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a recent speech at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies called for the frank discussion of “difficult issues” by the U.S. and China and stated that both countries “should work together when possible for the benefits of our countries and the world.” And President Joe Biden during South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s recent visit to Washington sought to assure Chinese leaders that U.S. efforts to increase domestic semiconductor manufacturing “is not designed to hurt China.” This is the language of détente, not containment. As China expert Gordon Chang writes, “Biden … does not appear ready to reestablish deterrence in an era of Chinese aggression and belligerence.”
The Biden administration continues to cling to the policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, despite the many calls on both sides of the political spectrum and in Congress to shift to “strategic clarity.” Moreover, Biden’s defense budget request for fiscal year 2024, as the Washington Examiner’s national security writer Tom Rogan explains, is a significant net decrease when factoring in the inflation rate. Rogan describes the proposed budget as “utterly incompatible with confronting the threat China poses.”
The geography of containment of China in the western Pacific is obvious when you look at a map of the region that Nicholas J. Spykman called the “Asiatic Mediterranean.” The coastal regions of China consist of marginal seas (Sea of Japan, East China Sea, South China Sea) bordered by what Hans W. Weigert described as “curving peninsular and island barriers” extending from the Aleutian Islands, the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin Island and Japan’s main islands, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Pescadores, the Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, and Indonesia. U.S. control of the seas and air in that region is essential to containing China. And U.S. control requires forces in place and the concrete support of key allies in the region.
China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and aggressive moves in the South China Sea have caused the smaller powers of the region to look to the United States for leadership. So far, as evidenced by Marcos’ request for greater security guarantees and South Korean doubts about the value and sincerity of America’s extended deterrent, they are not getting it from Biden.