- WASHINGTON EXAMINER - Joel Gehrke, Foreign Affairs Reporter - MAR 8, 2023 -
Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping’s expansive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea suggest that he believes in the "illusion of building an empire” through the Philippines and across the Indo-Pacific, a key U.S.-allied government fears.
“We can't just sit by and say just, ‘Go ahead and take whatever you want,’ and before we know it, tomorrow, we may not even have the Luzon island,” a Philippine official told the Washington Examiner. “I mean, this is something — this is [the] realities that we face right now. And, right now, our interests are aligned with the United States.”
For such a nightmarish prospect — the loss of the country’s largest island, home to the nation’s capital, Manila — to become imaginable, however unlikely it seems, reflects more than just frustration with Chinese Coast Guard aggression in the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone. It also points to a deeper anxiety sparked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a conflict that has spurred U.S. allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific to reconsider their concept of what is possible in global affairs.
“When you have personalities that lead a country now that have that illusion of building an empire — now, we don't know if President Xi [does], but it seems like he's going in that direction,” the Philippine official said, pointing to the potential for Putin and Xi to reprise the roles of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan during the Second World War. “He's saying he's going after Taiwan, he wants the unification of China, but who knows? The Japanese don't think so. We're beginning to think that there's a grander design to take over the entire Indo-Pacific region.”
Such a prospect would appear more likely if Russia emerges from the war in Ukraine as a perceived victor, senior European and Indo-Pacific officials argued in separate interviews.
“For all those that are doubting whether the U.S. is a trusted ally, this would be a strong sign for them that they are right,” Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski told the Washington Examiner. “If this will be some form of demonstrating that the U.S. is not strong enough to achieve the goals of defeating Russia and bringing permanent peace to Europe, not just a ceasefire for several months, this would further encourage such voices.”
Those assessments illuminate the diplomatic context for growing ties between the Indo-Pacific and European wings of the U.S. alliance network. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has described "a strong sense of urgency that Ukraine today, maybe East Asia tomorrow." He was one of four Indo-Pacific heads-of-state to attend the NATO summit in Madrid last year, along with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and the leaders of Australia and New Zealand.
“What is at stake in Ukraine is really much more significant than any other war that has taken place in the recent past because this is clearly a test of where countries have their boundaries,” the Philippine official said. “And once they start moving into the direction of taking over or occupying a country by force, that will definitely signal a new era where you have any country that has the power to do so, like Russia and China, will just go ahead and do it.”