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How is the US militarily reshaping the “first island chain” to shackle China?

With the evolution of the system of military alliances from a "minilateral" model to a broader "regional" one, a new geopolitical concept of the "Indo-Pacific" desired by the United States is gradually emerging, within an architecture of modernized and integrated regional security

In recent years, the United States has become the main axis of its diplomatic strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, implementing the strategic containment of China through "small multilateralism," locking Beijing within a containment ring, that is, in the first island chain.

Over time, however, this "small multilateralism" type alliance system has been supplemented and expanded by the U.S., strengthening the structure of the alliance system and densely weaving the network of allies in both horizontal and vertical dimensions.

On April 11, local time, the first trilateral summit between the United States, Japan and the Philippines was held in Washington. The goal was to strengthen trilateral maritime cooperation and establish a normalized cooperation mechanism, completing a major breakthrough for the United States by moving beyond the previous “minilateral” alliance system to contain China.

From left: U.S. President Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and Philippine President Marcos/File photo from AP

According to Hu Xin, recenciler at the Chinese Academy of South China Sea Studies, the puzzle reconstructs and reinforces the so-called "first island chain" blocking China, highlighting the network of alliances in the Indo-Pacific region with the United States as the core and the quadrilateral security mechanism as the central point. Added to this are multiple "mini-multilateral" mechanisms to supplement the core ones.

In practice, a modernized and integrated regional security architecture is increasingly taking shape.

Continue to integrate the Indo-Pacific alliance system "inward"

In recent years, the United States has carried out a comprehensive and three-dimensional integration of its “convergence” alliance system in the Indo-Pacific region in terms of objectives, structure and membership.

The first of them is the “unification” of the common goal of the alliance system to “counter China”.

After World War II, the United States established its dominant position in the strategic architecture of the Asia-Pacific through an elaborate system of bilateral alliances.

However, these “convergence” alliance systems have been relatively loose in structure and lack a unified strategic goal.

As China rapidly develops and gradually exerts its influence in the region, the strategic competition between China and the United States has become increasingly evident.

The United States now defines China as a "strategic competitor" and a "revisionist power" and believes that China is "the only country that has both the will and the ability to change the current international order."

Therefore, the new system of regional strategic alliances "targets China and checks and balances China", adds Hu Xin.

The second is the “mini-multilateralization” of structure, which integrates the relatively flexible bilateral alliance structure system into multiple sets of stable “mini-multilateral” mechanisms.

In practice, focusing on the quadrilateral security mechanism "United States, Japan, India and Australia", the US actively promotes dialogue, exchanges and cooperation with Japan and India, with Japan and Australia, with Japan, and with South Korea , Japan and the Philippines.

In less than a year, the four countries (United States, Philippines, Japan and Australia) have gone from holding the first ministerial defense dialogue to holding joint military exercises in the South China Sea, with the possibility of integration into a new “ quadrilateral safety mechanism.”

Minilateral cooperation is more flexible and less difficult than multilateral cooperation, the military expert adds.

It can complement and promote the original US-dominated bilateral alliances. It is also an integration of the geo-conceptual dimensions of “Indo-Pacific” and “Asia-Pacific”. ., enabling the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” to achieve greater connectivity between regional security architectures.

The third is to "network" relations between allies and strengthen the connection to achieve the integration and management of allies by the United States. Give space to the “sub-axis” role of key allies such as Japan and Australia in the alliance system and promote military and security dialogue and cooperation between them.

Countries such as Japan and the Philippines, Japan and Australia, Japan and South Korea, Japan and India, the Philippines and Australia, South Korea and Australia have all established a mechanism of "2+2" dialogue between Foreign Ministers and Defense Ministers.

Japan and India established a "special comprehensive strategic partnership"; Japan and Australia elevated their bilateral relationship with Vietnam to a "comprehensive strategic partnership"; Australia and India elevated their bilateral relationship to a security partnership; Japan and Australia signed the Joint Declaration on Security, elevating their bilateral relationship to a "quasi-alliance"; Japan and the Philippines strengthened military security cooperation by signing a Mutual Access Agreement. Australia has elevated bilateral relations to a security partnership; Japan and Australia have signed the Mutual Declaration on Security, elevating their bilateral relations to a "quasi-alliance"; Japan and the Philippines are also strengthening their cooperation in the field of military security and have put on the agenda the signing of a Mutual Access Agreement, moving toward the establishment of a "quasi-alliance" relationship. At the same time, Japan and the Philippines have been strengthening their cooperation in the field of military security and have put on the agenda of signing a Mutual Access Agreement, moving toward the creation of a "quasi-alliance."

Extension of the "outward" alliance system

While the U.S. continues to integrate the Indo-Pacific alliance system "inward," it also seeks to expand the alliance system "outward" and carry out multi-level extensions based on the core of the system.

First, the United States has developed a series of partner countries and "quasi-allies" based on traditional alliances in the region.

In September 2021, the United States and India established a strategic partnership and agreed to strengthen cooperation in the regional group of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and promote common interests in the Indo-Pacific. In addition to its traditional allies in the region, the U.S. has put Vietnam at the top of its list of security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, and on March 26, U.S.-Vietnam relations were elevated to "comprehensive strategic partnership." In the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report released by the U.S. Department of Defense, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia are considered "key countries" in Southeast Asia.

Second, the United States is actively involving its extraterritorial allies in regional affairs, showing a trend of geopolitical "proliferation" of the alliance system.

The United States has invited the United Kingdom to intervene deeply in regional affairs and formed the Trilateral Security Partnership (AUKUS) with Australia and helping that country build nuclear submarines.

In addition, Britain, France and Germany have been involved in the Indo-Pacific Alliance, and the three countries have established a "2+2" dialogue mechanism with Japan's foreign and defense ministers.

In particular, Britain and Germany respectively signed the Reciprocal Access Agreement and the Agreement on Mutual Supply of Materials and Labor Services with Japan, pushing the development of bilateral relations in the direction of a "quasi-alliance."

The United Kingdom and Germany, in turn, signed the Mutual Access Agreement and the Agreement on Mutual Supply of Materials and Labor Services with Japan, respectively, pushing bilateral relations in the direction of "quasi-alliance."

Under the encouragement of the United States, extraterritorial countries have gradually increased their military activities in the region. In 2021, the United Kingdom sent the aircraft carrier strike group HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Asia-Pacific region and announced the permanent deployment of two warships to the region. In the same year, Germany also sent the frigate Bavaria to the Asia-Pacific region. In 2021, France and the United States and Japan conducted joint military exercises in the Sea of Japan for the first time, and in 2023, Germany participated in the joint military exercise "Sabre" led by the United States and Australia for the first time.

AUKUS is considering wooing Japan to join and participate in the development of advanced technologies under the second pillar of the framework. Screenshot from Nikkei Asia

Third, the themes of the alliance system have gradually expanded from single high-political issues such as security and defense to diversified low-political functional issues such as economy and trade, infrastructure, supply chain, and new energy.

The United States proposed the blue dot network program in 2019, launched the Build a Better World (B3W) initiative in 2021, and launched the Global Infrastructure and Investment Partnership (GIIP) in 2022. "The Global Infrastructure and Investment Partnership (GIIP) aims to strengthen infrastructure cooperation with allies to guard against the far-reaching impact of China's Belt and Road Initiative.

In the area of supply chains, with the establishment of the Quadrilateral Technology Network (QTN) in 2021 under the framework of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia and the entry into force in February 2024 of the Supply Chain Agreement, one of the four pillars of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the United States seeks to reshape its role in the Indo-Pacific region.

More accurately, "the United States seeks to reshape its role as a supply chain dominator in the Indo-Pacific region and reduce the regional impact of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)," adds Hu Xin.

In the field of science and technology, the United States first joined the "Technology Club" formed by South Korea, India and Australia with the consensus to exclude Huawei's 5G equipment, and then joined the "Global Partnership for artificial intelligence" initiated by the Group of Seven to build strategic technologies to suppress China in the development of such technology.

Furthermore, in 2022, the United States organized “Chip Four” (Chip4) in an attempt to cut off China's access to chips and exclude Beijing from the global semiconductor supply chain.

The expansion and overlap of high- and low-level political issues has enabled the Indo-Pacific alliance system to form a more interdisciplinary minilateralism, increasing the intensity and breadth of its “decoupling and disconnection” from China, concludes Hu Xin.

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