Will China be able to neutralize AUKUS through CPTPP?

By- Radomir Romanov 

This article is the second one of a two-part series by the author. Read the first part,Understanding the strategic rationale of AUKUS‘ here.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has applied through New Zealand to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Thus, Beijing seeks not only to join the ranks of this organization, but at least partially neutralize the anti-Chinese bloc AUKUS, created under the auspices of the United States. Losing to the United States and its allies in the military field, Beijing decided to win back points in the economic sphere, not without reason hoping that cooperation in this area would be able to keep a number of countries from being unfriendly towards the PRC. Beijing has been considering joining the organization since 2020, but Washington’s anti-Chinese policy has undoubtedly strengthened the determination of the Chinese leadership to become a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The prospects for a decision are not yet clear: the application may be considered for a rather long time or may be rejected. СРТРР is a trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Vietnam, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Chile, Japan. It evolved from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which never went into effect due to the withdrawal of the United States in 2017, when Trump gave Japan the initiative to reform the TPP into the СРТРР. However, Washington maintains its influence with the organization through Japan and Canada. In addition to these states, a significant part of the organization’s members is under the influence of the United States: this is, at least, Mexico, Australia, Singapore, Chile. Therefore, the entry of the PRC into the organization can be rejected under any plausible pretext.

The United Kingdom is a potential member of the organization. Although the official application has not yet been filed, a working group was established in London in June 2021 to prepare for joining the СРТРР. Britain may well enter the organization in the near future. This will further strengthen the forces unfriendly to China in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Beijing is ready to act with the help of “soft power”, actively carrying out investments and joint projects in the countries of Southeast Asia and Latin America. However, the United States will also retain a fairly strong political position in the region. America remains the strongest military power in the world, and this is what Washington is counting on in its confrontation with China.

With respect to a number of Asian countries (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore), Washington can act without involving them directly in AUKUS (although it would be easier to control allies in a single military-political bloc), and through bilateral allies contracts. The United States already has similar agreements with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. There are US military bases in Singapore, Japan, and South Korea. Military-technical cooperation and the supply of American weapons to the countries of the region are underway.

The United States has formidable political influence in Indonesia and Vietnam. From these countries one can expect at least “friendly neutrality” towards Washington.

Why then did China apply?

The PRC acts by analogy with the USSR, which filed an application to join NATO in 1954. If joining the СРТРР nevertheless takes place, Beijing will have the opportunity to somehow influence the organization’s policy. If China is refused, it is possible to win ideologically: the PRC is ready for cooperation, and the United States and its allies are the real aggressor, shaking the situation in the region.

So does China have a response to the new US-UK-Australia alliance? 

Today’s talks between the PRC and the two leaders of the Pacific island states (the Solomon Islands and Tonga) seem to me to be a kind of response to the new US-UK-Australia trilateral partnership.

The states of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia have become a kind of rivalry for influence between the United States and China. These small countries are strategically important because of their geographic location.

Beijing has systematically built bilateral relations with the small island countries of the Pacific Ocean and expanded its economic, technical and humanitarian influence in the region.

China actively invests in the countries of the region, draws on their strong economic dependence, probably in order to “politely ask” over time to place its own logistics facilities on the territory. In connection with the potential for expanding the Chinese military presence, East Timor, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, as well as the Kingdom of Tonga, which owe China an amount of almost 25% of its GDP, are often mentioned.

Beijing’s main interest in the Pacific Islands is due to the need to resist pressure from the United States, which has only been growing lately. The American system of containment of the PRC is actively operating in the region, better known as the first (Okinawa-Taiwan-Philippines) and second (Japan-Guam-Indonesia) chain of islands.

And if China still does not have naval bases in the region (for example, in 2018 the Vanuatu government politely refused to deploy), then there are still some diplomatic successes. Two years ago, the Solomon Islands, located at a distance of less than 2,000 km from Australia, officially established diplomatic relations with China and recognized the policy of one China.

Countries of Asia

Japan has already become actively involved in anti-Chinese initiatives. At the same time, Tokyo is even more interested than Washington in attracting non-regional players to contain China. This will give the Japanese more room to maneuver. Japan and Great Britain are now building especially close contacts.

South Korea is obliged to adhere to a pro-American and anti-Chinese line. The relationship between Korea and China is much more complicated and confusing. Seoul does not join Quad and is cautiously looking towards the Five Eyes intelligence alliance precisely because it does not want to unnecessarily spoil relations with Beijing. The situation is aggravated by the traditional enmity of South Korea with Japan. Ultimately, the Americans will almost certainly be able to involve the South Koreans in one format or another, but it will be difficult to rely on them in the confrontation with the PRC.

Taiwan is still a headache for all sides. The island is extremely important, but in terms of its own defenses it is far from the outpost, and the reality of the joint Taiwanese-American command today looks doubtful (although it is possible in the future).

Singapore relies on the Americans and their allies in ensuring regional security, primarily because it does not consider them a threat to its own sovereignty. Therefore, Singaporeans reacted positively to the creation of AUKUS in general, although they expressed concern. The latter is due to the common fear for most Southeast Asian countries of being caught between a rock and a hard place in the event of a tough Sino-American conflict. Singapore will try to maneuver between the parties, remaining geopolitically on the side of the West, but maintaining trade and economic ties with China.

Of the Southeast Asian countries, only the Philippines has clearly welcomed AUKUS so far, saying that the partnership “will be able to maintain the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.” It seems that this is a direct consequence of the resumption of military-political contacts after the visit to Manila by the head of the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin. In response, the Filipinos are hoping to get the Americans to make specific commitments on the South China Sea (we can only wish them luck).

But with Thailand it is more difficult. For most of Trump’s presidency, Bangkok was practically ignored by the Americans due to restrictions on contacts with military regimes. Attempts to resume relations appeared only by mid-2020, when the same General Prayut had been elected prime minister for a year already. The Biden administration has not yet shown much interest in Thais, and Lloyd Austin and Kamala Harris have not included the country in their regional tours.

At the same time, American experts themselves especially emphasize the importance of the Philippines and Thailand for the defense strategy and US interests in the region.

India is the main prize the United States will fight for. To create a full-fledged system of deterring China in Indo-Pacific, three major players must participate in the anti-Chinese coalition at once: Japan, Australia and India.

If this trio, together with the United States, began to restrain China, then the balance of power will be strongly not in favor of the latter. But the Americans will obviously be able to drag South Korea, the Philippines and some states of Southeast Asia into the union.

In general, China is in a difficult situation, and a more careful policy in India could make it easier. In the global game, the main thing for Beijing now is to achieve the neutral status of this country in the American-Chinese confrontation.

It is interesting that with regard to Russia, China’s task is clearly the opposite. Prevent Moscow’s neutrality in the Cold War, keeping it as a partner (albeit without a formal military community). By the way, this will not be easy either, because for all the friendship, there are also plenty of problems in Russian-Chinese relations.

In the story with AUKUS, it is really important to pay attention to the strengthening of the role and weight not so much of the United States or even Australia, but of Great Britain. London is the only one in this trio that does not directly belong to the Asia-Pacific (Indo-Pacific) region, but thus acquires a privileged status. In addition, the British are increasing their diplomatic and trade and economic presence in Southeast Asia, receive the status of a dialogue partner with ASEAN, apply for the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and, as a show of force, have brought their aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Radomir Romanov is Senior Officer of Asia-Pacific International Institutions and Multilateral Cooperation Studies Center at the Far Eastern Federal University. He completed his Bachelors in “Interpretation and Translation Studies” at the Department of Japanese Studies and Masters from Cchool of International Relations at the Department of Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Mongolian Languages.

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