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How can the U.S. counter China's expanding influence in Asia? Court its neighbors


President Biden is hosting a meeting with the leaders of two key U.S. allies - Japan and the Philippines.


The meeting is part of an effort by the United States to enhance its long-standing network of alliances and partnerships in the region, partly to counter China.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is with us now from Seoul to fill us in on all this. Anthony, hello.


MARTIN: So who's at this meeting, and what's the agenda?

KUHN: Well, these are the leaders of arguably the closest U.S. allies in Northeast and Southeast Asia respectively, Japan's prime minister, Fumio Kishida, and the Philippines' President, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and they've been announcing their own, you know, upgrades to their relationships. Kishida and Biden have talked about upgrading their alliance. Tokyo and Manila have been working to strengthen their military ties. Now, both Japan and the Philippines have territorial disputes with China in the East and South China Seas, and so we, I think, can expect to hear a lot of talk of shared values among democracies, rule of law, freedom of navigation, etc.

MARTIN: So, Anthony, what's new about this? I mean, if the U.S. already has these relationships, how is this different?

KUHN: Well, Asia as a whole does not have security institutions like NATO. What it has is a system known as hub-and-spokes. The U.S. is the hub, and it has these individual relationships with countries like Japan and the Philippines. Now, they, other countries like India, Australia and New Zealand, are linking up among themselves in what the U.S. government calls a sort of lattice network, which they hope will constrain China. There's also an important economic component to this, because Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines need infrastructure - ports, rails, etc. - and whoever does the building makes friends. The U.S. is not really building it in Asia, so Southeast Asian nations have to turn to either Japan or China to do it. In fact, the U.S. is turning to Japan, too, and Biden and Kishida may discuss building a Japanese bullet train line in Texas.

MARTIN: So does this mean that the role of the U.S. in sort of organizing these relationships between the countries is changing?

KUHN: Well, I think it's capitalizing on the networks that are being made among these countries, and it's trying to get everyone to join Team Democracy, so to speak. But many countries in Asia have, for decades, relied on China for their trade and the U.S. for security, but now, with this U.S.-China rivalry, they feel pressured to pick sides, and they don't like it. I spoke to Aaron Connelly, who's a Singapore-based expert on Southeast Asian politics at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and he says the big concern among Southeast Asian policymakers is this.

AARON CONNOLLY: The traditional role that the United States has played, providing security in a stabilizing way to Southeast Asia, might not be so stabilizing anymore, and so the United States' presence in Southeast Asia and its rivalry with China is making Southeast Asia less safe.

KUHN: So President Marcos and Prime Minister Kishida are a bit unusual in that they have picked sides. They've cast their lot with the U.S., while a lot of other countries' leaders are sitting on the fence.

MARTIN: Anthony, before we let you go, how is China reacting to all these moves?

KUHN: Well, they're certainly not backing down, and they continue to use these strong-arm tactics on the Philippines in the South China Sea, bumping into their ships, hitting them with water cannons but stopping short of a real fight. Their aim seems to be to show that the U.S. is not a reliable ally, and Manila should rely on Beijing instead.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Anthony, thank you.

KUHN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.