Are U.S. allies finally rallying around Washington’s more aggressive stance toward Beijing?
By Michael Auslin, the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics: Essays on Reshaping the Indo-Pacific and is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
People watch from the shore as the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier leaves Portsmouth Naval Base in southeastern England on May 1.
For more than 800 years, English naval ships have been launching from Portsmouth, bound for the world’s oceans. Last week, the Royal Navy opened a new era with the departure of a new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, for the beginning of an seven-month deployment that will bring it to the Indo-Pacific, along with a strike group. There, the Royal Navy task force will participate in operations designed to ensure freedom of navigation and open seas. The reason? “We see China as being a challenge and a competitor,” said Britain’s first sea lord, Adm. Tony Radakin, during a visit with his U.S. counterpart, Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations.
Some might wonder why the British are sticking their toes into the turbulent waters of far-away Asia—why London is suddenly so committed to upholding a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” adopting the slogan used by the Trump and Biden administrations alike. Or, even more tellingly, why so many nations even beyond the United Kingdom are increasingly vocal in their criticisms of Beijing.
The looming Chinese-U.S. confrontation—and especially the United States’ supposedly more aggressive stance—is often cited as the main threat to global peace. The danger is argued to be the result of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn four decades of more cooperative U.S. policy toward China. Trump’s moves, including imposing tariffs, banning tech companies, challenging Beijing’s influence campaigns, increasing naval operations in the South China Sea, and deepening ties with Taiwan, led to warnings that Washington was turning China into an enemy and pushing the two nations closer to conflict. For example, an open letter to then-President Trump signed by more than 100 American academics and former diplomats and military officers expressed the belief that “many U.S. actions are contributing directly to the downward spiral in relations.”
The fact that the Biden administration has not only continued but in some ways intensified Trump’s policies has added to concern that the U.S. foreign-policy elite is now irrevocably committed to a confrontational approach to China. Thus, the Nation’s Michael Klare criticized Secretary of State Antony Blinken for lambasting the Chinese at his Anchorage meeting with his Chinese counterparts and stated that the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea were “provocative maneuvers,” despite The Hague’s 2016 rejection of Beijing’s claims in those waters.
Were it really the case that America alone was to blame for U.S.-Chinese tensions, then one might expect to see other countries dissociate themselves from Washington’s apparently rash actions, either sitting on the sidelines or actively opposing U.S. policies. Instead, Beijing not only finds itself the target of a widening range of critics but in active disputes with a host of liberal nations.