China Warns U.S. Against Forming 'Indo-Pacific NATO'

China's NATO blame game in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been brought back to Asia, where Beijing says U.S. alliance-building could result in a great power clash before long.

The Chinese leadership's decision to side with Russia came long before Vladimir Putin ordered troops across lines of control into Ukrainian-held territory on February 24. Officials in Beijing sympathize with Moscow's grievances against the West because they perceive a similar U.S.-led containment effort happening around them, despite American assurances that it's not the case.

From China's perspective, a contested land border with India as well as maritime and territorial disputes with half a dozen neighbors—among them U.S. treaty allies—are just about manageable. Beijing already has enough on its plate without a persistent NATO presence in the region, and it would very much like to keep it that way.

During a meeting with the alliance's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, in September 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his country "has not been, and will not be, a rival to NATO." The military bloc, he said, "should adhere to its original geographic positioning"—the most roundabout way of telling NATO to stay out of Asia.

Over the weekend, Wang's No. 2, Le Yucheng, used the war in Ukraine as a cautionary tale about what China calls "Cold War mentality," a phrase deployed with such frequency that President Joe Biden had to use his first United Nations speech to dispel it. For Beijing, Russia's deadly siege on Kyiv has become the perfect way to show Washington that brewing geopolitical tensions can lead to a hot war.

At a forum hosted by Beijing's Tsinghua University on Saturday, Le said it was "deeply distressing" that the "flames of war" had been reignited on the European continent. "More importantly, [it] should prompt us to profoundly reflect. The root cause lies in the Cold War mentality and power politics," he said.

"The Ukraine crisis provides a mirror for us to observe the situation in the Asia-Pacific. We cannot but ask, how can we prevent a crisis like this from happening in the Asia-Pacific?" the official said. "The crisis in Ukraine is a stern warning."

Le went on to condemn America's engagement in Asia and the tightening of key defense alliances with Japan, South Korea and others. He also warned against quasi-security "minilaterals" such as the Quad between the U.S., India, Australia and Japan; and the AUKUS pact between the U.S., U.K. and Australia.

"Going against the trend to pursue the Indo-Pacific strategy, provoke trouble, put together closed and exclusive cliques or groups, and get the region off course toward fragmentation and bloc-based division is as dangerous as the NATO strategy of eastward expansion in Europe," he continued.

"If allowed to go on unchecked, it would bring unimaginable consequences, and ultimately push the Asia-Pacific over the edge of an abyss," said Le, whose remarks were also aimed at China's neighbors, who he suggested should pursue independent foreign policies without Washington—and presumably with Beijing instead.

China Warns Against Indo-Pacific NATO Alliance
China’s President Xi Jinping attends the G20 economic summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 6, 2017. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its fourth week, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told a Tsinghua University event that U.S. alliance-building in Asia was just as dangerous as NATO’s eastward expansion, on March 19, 2022. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A day after Le's event, the People's Liberation Army Daily, the Chinese military's official newspaper, echoed many of his viewpoints in an editorial titled: "Ganging up to disrupt regional peace and stability—Looking at America's contemptible role on the international stage from the perspective of the Ukraine crisis."

Like China's vice foreign minister, the faceless column by a pseudonymous author blames the war in Ukraine on NATO's expansion toward "Russia's doorstep." In Asia, the paper said the U.S. is guilty of strengthening the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, peddling the Quad, piecing together AUKUS and revitalizing bilateral defense treaties in what has been called America's "5, 4, 3, 2" formation.

"The real purpose of the 'Indo-Pacific Strategy' is to create an Indo-Pacific version of 'NATO' in order to maintain the U.S.-led hegemonic system," it declared.

"Here, I would like to advise the U.S. not to cling to Cold War mentality and ideological prejudices," the author concluded. "Some self-reflection as soon as possible would be a wise move, or else it will suffer a shameful failure."

It remains unclear whether Beijing's messaging will get through to countries in the region that favor security relations with the U.S.

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China watchers see a country that is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks, clashing with India in the Himalayas, militarizing islands in the South China Sea and challenging the postwar regional order anchored by more than seven decades of American engagement.

Not all governments in Asia see Washington through the same lens as China. There are those, like Singapore, that see the U.S. as a stabilizing presence at best and a benign one at worst.

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