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Biden’s maiden Asia tour all about building a front against arch-foe China

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
US President Joe Biden (L) meets with China’s President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the White House in Washington, DC, November 2021.

US President Joe Biden’s maiden Asia tour since taking the office early last year is all about building a front against China as he sets off to establish a mega economic forum next week designed to curb the arch-foe's growing economic clout.

The high-profile tour, which kicked off in South Korea on Friday, is seen as a bold and adventurous move by Washington to confront China’s increasing economic power in the region in particular and in the world in general.

His goal is largely evident from the fact that he will next week launch the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a mega “economic arrangement”, in the Japanese capital Tokyo, his second destination during his five-day Asian trip.

Apart from the US itself, the IPEF is expected to bring together India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines as its members. More members could be added later, according to reports.

US National Security Adviser (NSA) Jake Sullivan on Wednesday, while confirming that Biden will launch the IPEE, described the so-called forum as “a new, ambitious economic initiative for the region.”

The IPEF is a “21st-century economic arrangement, a new model designed to tackle new economic challenges - from setting the rules of the digital economy, to ensuring secure and resilient supply chains, to managing the energy transition, to investing in clean, modern, high-standards infrastructure,” he added.

What the senior Biden aide emphasized was that the alliance would send a powerful message to China, the US' arch-foe.

“We think that message will be heard everywhere. We think it will be heard in Beijing,” he said.

The development comes as the Biden administration is trying to increase its footprints in Southeast Asia by resetting ties with regional countries in an attempt to form a military coalition against China, which has time and again said that Washington is expanding militarism in the regions far from its borders, while it tries to justify its military presence in the Southeast Asian region by making baseless allegations against Beijing.

China claims the South China Sea in its entirety. The Philippines, Malaysia, two would-be members of the IPEF, and Vietnam, as well as Brunei, have overlapping claims to parts of the sea. 

The US and its allies side with Beijing's rival claimants in the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, while China has always warned the US against military activities in the waters.

Furthermore, Japan, another would-be member of the IPEF, and China have for several years been locked in a territorial row over the small group of islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

China maintains that it has indisputable sovereignty over the islands but Japan regards them as parts of its territory. The US sides with Japan.

Last year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken encapsulated Washington’s policy when he said that “our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.”

On Friday, India’s online portal, ThePrint, citing what it called “top-level sources”, reported that Biden would be extending to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi an invitation to join the IPEF when they would meet in Tokyo next week for the Quad Summit, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which is viewed by Beijing as part of a US-led campaign to undermine China’s interests.

The report added that New Delhi and Washington reached an understanding last month when India’s Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited the US. 

It was agreed then that although the IPEF would demand “high standards” by way of establishing and maintaining trade facilitation, supply-chain resilience, and infrastructure, it would nevertheless be a “strategic move” targeting China.

On Wednesday, China’s senior diplomats strongly denounced the US and Japan, accusing the pair of ganging up on China and playing the Taiwan card.

China regards the Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) as a breakaway province, claiming sovereignty over it. Under the ‘One China’ policy, virtually all countries recognize that sovereignty. The island, however, has been self-ruled since 1950. 

The United States, though claiming to abide by the ‘Once China’ policy, has long courted the Chinese Taipei and sold weapons to the self-governed island in an attempt to unnerve Beijing.

The unusually strongly-worded rhetoric by these diplomats reveals that Beijing has deepening concerns regarding a growing encirclement effort spearheaded by Washington and Tokyo to curb Beijing, some three months after Russia began a military operation in Ukraine.

“The Taiwan question is the most important, sensitive, and core question in China-US relations. If the US side persists in playing the Taiwan card and goes further down the wrong path, it will surely put the situation in serious jeopardy,” Yang Jiechi, Chinese President Xi Jinping's top foreign policy aide, said in a phone call with Sullivan.

Yang also accused the Biden administration of failing to live up to its past commitments, especially in Taiwan.

“If the US side persists in playing the Taiwan card and goes further down the wrong path, it will surely put the situation in serious jeopardy, he added, warning that Beijing would take “firm action” to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests and “the US side can count on China to keep its promise.”

Also on Wednesday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a heated exchange with his Japanese counterpart, Yoshimasa Hayashi, during a video call, lambasting Tokyo for what he called destabilizing bilateral ties with “negative moves on Taiwan and other issues involving China's core interests and major concerns.”

China is angry at Japan for hosting the Quad Summit next week, which will also see the participation of the leaders of Australia and India. Beijing deems the Indo-Pacific strategic grouping as an attempt to form an “Asian NATO” targeting Beijing.

“What makes people pay attention and be vigilant is that even before the US leader embarks on his trip, the viewpoint that Japan and the United States are joining hands to confront China is already rampant, creating a foul atmosphere,” Wang said.

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