By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 (Yonhap) -- The United States is aggressively striving to build a NATO-like security mechanism in the Indo-Pacific region in an apparent effort to keep a rising China in check, but how many countries will join remains a big question, analysts said Thursday.
The U.S. began floating the idea of a coalition in the Indo-Pacific region a few years back.
So far, only India, Japan and Australia have joined to form what U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun recently labeled as the "Quad."
The U.S. is eyeing to expand and formalize the forum to what is dubbed the "Quad Plus."
The U.S. has named at least three other countries -- South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand -- as "natural" members of the envisioned Indo-Pacific coalition.
The seven countries -- the quad plus the three -- "will do their very best to advance this combination of interests that we have in the Indo-Pacific," Biegun has said, noting the countries have been holding weekly teleconferences to discuss their joint efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experts, however, believe pledging commitment to a formal coalition is an entirely different story, especially when it is viewed as a battle against China.
"I don't see many nations signing up to any sort of NATO-style coalition against Beijing, as many nations across the Indo-Pacific question America's staying power, commitment to alliances and overall ability to project power considering its high debt levels from years of deficit spending and now the coronavirus crisis," said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Washington-based policy think tank National Interest.
Paik Woo-yeol, a political science professor at Seoul's Yonsei University, said the countries are unlikely to pick one side.
"Unlike in the Cold War when countries were completely divided around the United States and the former Soviet Union, middle power states now have more power. They will likely seek to gather in the middle ground that now exists, instead of dividing into two," he told Yonhap News Agency.
Washington's sudden push for an Indo-Pacific coalition, more than two years after it took the initiative, comes amid its growing tensions with Beijing.
The U.S. shut down a Chinese consulate in Houston earlier this year, accusing Chinese diplomats there of spying on the U.S., a move later exacted by China with the shutdown of a U.S. consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.
Paik said what the U.S. seeks to do with a NATO-like coalition is obvious.
"It is crystal clear. It is the next stage of containment where (the U.S.) will press China in all fronts," said the professor. "It is a step up from the stage of constraint."
The U.S. is not hiding its intentions, either.
"Our strategy is to push back against China in virtually every domain," Biegun said Monday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later claimed that South Korea and others will soon join forces with the United States.
"Whether it's our friends in India, our friends in Australia, friends in Japan or South Korea, I think they have all come to see the risk to their own people, to their own countries, and you'll see them partner with the United States to push back on every front," Pompeo said Tuesday in an interview with a U.S. news network.
Such an explicit intent, however, is making it more difficult, if not impossible, for countries such as South Korea to join the Indo-Pacific initiative, which would inevitably portray them as taking sides with the U.S. over China.
"Seoul is in a tough position when it comes to China, its top trading partner, and America, its military ally," says Kazianis. "What would Seoul gain for a NATO alliance with America? Honestly, only pain."
The U.S., however, will continue to seek an expansion of its Indo-Pacific coalition, even under a new president, he argued.
"You will see greater alliance and military capacity building and attempts to forge new alliances with nations like Japan, Vietnam, India and perhaps others. However, many will try to hedge their bets and not want to choose a side, knowing that China isn't going anywhere," said Kazianis.
"Many nations across the Indo-Pacific, and rightly so, will question America's commitment to the region -- no matter who is president," he added.
To many, including South Korea, China's economic prowess exerts a massive influence that simply cannot be ignored. And South Korea was one of the first to realize the crippling effect of China's economic retaliation.
South Korea's economic growth slowed to a six-year low of 2.7 percent in 2018, after Beijing began to take retaliatory measures against Seoul in late 2017 over the deployment of the THAAD U.S. missile defense system in South Korea.
In 2019 alone, South Korea's shipments to China came to US$243.4 billion, 23.3 percent of its overall exports and over $32 billion more than South Korean exports to the United States and Japan combined, according to data from the Korea International Trade Association.
Still, the U.S. insists that what it calls China's "predatory" economic activities are only another reason for countries to stand together with the United States against China.
"We built relationships with like-minded nations based on reciprocal trade, not predatory economics, based on respect for the sovereignty of all countries, not a strategy of might makes right," U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
The South Korean ambassador to the United States, Lee Soo-hyuck, recently highlighted the dilemma.
"Security alone cannot make one nation survive. Economic activities are as important as security," he said in a webinar hosted by George Washington University's Institute for Korean Studies on Thursday.
"Not one thing is (more) important than the other. Both things, security and economy, should go together," he said.
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