Taiwan publicly tested nearly 20 air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles Tuesday, the eve of Chinese President Hu Jintao's summit with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who personally observed the rather overt attempt at demonstrating military power (nearly a third of the missiles appear to have failed to function properly in one way or another), insisted that the timing was unrelated to Hu's arrival in the United States.
This is, of course, absurd. The spectrum of missiles tested in one day in an event that appears to have been announced only the previous day and attended by the Taiwanese president is obviously more a political than military act. Nor is it an isolated instance of regional rivals acting out in opposition to China as Beijing and Washington work to rekindle ties. In the last month, Indian media have insisted that China is escalating a diplomatic row over visas. Japanese media asserted that China is stepping away from its nuclear no-first-use policy. South Korean media claimed that Chinese military trucks were spotted in North Korea and that the two countries have discussed China deploying troops in the Rason region in northeast North Korea. In each case, the country's press played up the story and China denied the charge.
But these events are united by a common theme: significant concern about the trajectory of U.S.-Chinese relations. The recent visit to China by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was primarily about the resumption of direct military-to-military ties, but the two countries have a host of larger issues between them: North Korea's recent belligerence, sanctions against Iran, currency appreciation and other trade and economic policy disputes. Beijing's breaking off of military-to-military ties over a U.S. arms deal to Taiwan has been set aside as the two giants attempt to reach some sort of accommodation on bilateral disagreements and their changing regional and global roles.
The U.S. is not about to abandon its allies in the region, but there is a perceptible unease. The U.S. hesitance to dispatch an aircraft carrier upon request by South Korea in the wake of the North Korean sinking of the corvette ChonAn (772) resonated far beyond Seoul. Washington's support of one of its closest allies was not unflinching and the underlying reason for U.S. hesitancy was Washington's concern about its relationship with China. American allies fear that the more hesitant that Washington is to challenge China due to its own national interest in other realms, the more limited and flinching American support will be as China continues to rise in the region - and particularly as it shows a more forceful presence in peripheral seas and territories. But the United States accommodated South Korea after the Yeonpyeong Island shelling. Not only did it deploy a carrier to the Yellow Sea, at one point, three carriers were in the region. The United States also held several exercises with South Korea, and made a very public push for greater trilateral coordination with allies South Korea and Japan that attempted to demonstrate a unified front. In this way, some concerns about U.S. hesitancy to lead the charge against China were waylaid.
The issues between Washington and Beijing are profound. Hu's summit with Obama is hardly going to result in some grand rapprochement between the two, formal state dinner at the White House notwithstanding. But the recent freeze in relations appears to have a few cracks as Washington and Beijing continue to find ways to cooperate and prevent tensions from spiraling out of control or causing a unbridgeable rift. As with many American allies in the past, there is a wariness of American national interests (in this case of the rising prominence and importance of good relations with China) diverging from those of its allies.
The American network of allies in the western Pacific remains central to U.S. grand strategy in the region. But for South Korea, it was a delay in dispatching a carrier to send a signal. For the Taiwanese, it may be U.S. hesitance to sell more and more advanced weapons. As the United States and China grow more interdependent, American allies will be wondering what's next.