Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 28 April 2024

Beijing ‘boiling frog’ strategy raises tension

Outgoing US Indo-Pacific admiral warns of risk posed by escalating aggression


The commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific region has accused China of pursuing a “boiling frog” strategy, raising tensions in the region with increasingly dangerous military activity.

Admiral John “Lung” Aquilino said that during his three years as US Indo-Pacific commander, China had increased its pace of military development and matched its growing capabilities with more destabilising behaviour.

“It’s getting more aggressive, they’re getting more bold and it’s getting more dangerous,” Aquilino told the Financial Times in an interview before he hands over command to Admiral Samuel “Pappy” Paparo this week.

Aquilino said China was stepping up its aggressive conduct through a “boiling frog” strategy, in which it gradually raised the temperature so that the ultimate danger was under-appreciated until it was too late.

“There needs to be a continual description of China’s bad behaviour that is outside legal international norms. And that story has to be told by all the nations in the region,” he said.

Asked what was the most nerveracking incident during his command, Aquilino said it was around the time of former house speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, partly because China misinterpreted the trip as an escalatory change in US policy.

At the time, there were calls on Chinese social media for the People’s Liberation Army to shoot down Pelosi’s plane. “The misinterpretation by the Chinese gave me a concern that they might actually take actions that could be detrimental,” said Aquilino.

Chinese warplanes now routinely fly over the median line in the Taiwan Strait, which previously acted as a buffer between the sides. More recently, China’s coast guard has also become more assertive around the Taiwanese islands of Kinmen and Matsu. “This is the pressure campaign in action. I’ve watched it increase in scope and scale, it is not slowing down,” said Aquilino. “It is only getting more aggressive.”

Aquilino said China had not flown any spy balloons over Hawaii, Guam or the continental US since a suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down over the US in February last year.

He said the “best example” of China’s coercive activity was around the Second Thomas Shoal, a reef inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China claims the feature despite a 2016 international arbitration tribunal ruling that it has no sovereign claim over the submerged reef.

Chinese coast guard vessels have in recent months taken aggressive actions — including firing water cannons — to stop the Philippines from resupplying marines on the Sierra Madre, a rusty ship that Manila grounded on the reef in 1999 to reinforce its claims.

Aquilino said he was concerned about other threats, including North Korea, which launched more missiles in 2023 than its previous cumulative total. He said he was paying close attention to the co-operation between North Korea and Russia and deepening ties between China and Russia which he stressed were “incredibly concerning”.

As he prepares to hand over command in Hawaii to Paparo, Aquilino said one of his top messages was the need to focus on speed and urgency in terms of operating and delivering capabilities, including with allies.

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