On Saturday, the leaders of the United States, Australia, and Japan met in Sydney to discuss security policy. President Bush, Prime Minster John Howard, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were careful in their first trilateral meeting not to rile Beijing. “As far as China is concerned, the three leaders shared the same recognition that it’s important to have a positive engagement with China,” said Mitsuo Sakaba, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman. Added Charles Morrison of the East-West Center in Honolulu, “They have bent over backwards to try to make sure that starting up their own dialogue does not upset China.”
Why should these nations be so apologetic? The Chinese, after all, do not hesitate to stand up for themselves. Beijing, in the last few months, sent diplomatic protests to the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, asking each of them for an explanation of their growing cooperation. The four participants in the new “quadrilateral dialogue” met in May to discuss strengthening their relationship. Last week, the navies of these four nations (plus Singapore) conducted five days of exercises in the Bay of Bengal—the first such joint exercise in the history of the five nations. The Chinese look south and east and see their neighbors trying to contain them.
Yet Beijing is in no position to complain that the democracies of Asia are drawing together in an arc that sweeps from India to Japan. This loose arrangement—it’s much too early to call it an alliance—was formed largely in reaction to China itself. Beijing is building up its armed forces rapidly and non-transparently. It’s been conducting joint military exercises with Russia since 2005 (including the large one last month), and slowly turning the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—a grouping of China, Russia, and four Central Asian “stans”—into a true alliance with an overtly anti-American cast.
The big trend in Asia is that nations on the periphery of China are banding together to match the continental alliance of the SCO and the growing relationship of Beijing and Moscow. The democracies of the Pacific need to acknowledge in public what they are thinking in private. They need to start defending themselves—and to stop being so solicitous of Beijing’s feelings.