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China is gradually amping up its military aggression in a 'boiling frog' strategy, US Indo-Pacific commander says

Matthew Loh   

China is gradually amping up its military aggression in a 'boiling frog' strategy, US Indo-Pacific commander says
  • US Adm. John Aquilino said China is gradually getting bolder and acting more dangerously.
  • In an interview with FT, the INDOPACOM chief described the strategy as a 'boiling frog' tactic.

The US Indo-Pacific Command's outgoing chief said China has been turning up the heat on its neighbors with progressively bolder military actions in a pattern designed to catch them off guard.

Adm. John Aquilino described Beijing's strategy to the Financial Times as a "boiling frog" tactic, or to gradually step up aggression so that other nations don't immediately realize when a critical point in conflict is reached.

In an interview published on Sunday, he told the FT that these nations must speak up and call out aggressive behavior from Beijing.

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

Aquilino, who led US forces in the Indo-Pacific for three years, cited two major conflict points involving China — Taiwan and the Second Thomas Shoal.

Beijing has continually been posturing more aggressively toward Taiwan, which it claims as its territory.

Chinese leaders are shifting to more war-like rhetoric against the self-governed island, and regularly send dozens of fighter jets at a time across the median line of the Taiwan Strait. Balloons that Taiwan says are from China also often pass over the island's airspace.

While not seen as an outright act of war, the incursions are typically described as "grey-zone" warfare that forces a response from Taiwanese defenses and keeps its people on edge.

"This is the pressure campaign in action. I've watched it increase in scope and scale, it is not slowing down," Aquilino told the FT.

He said China has taken conflict one step further against the Philippines at the Second Thomas Shoal, a reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea.

The islands are internationally recognized as under the Philippines' jurisdiction, but China has in recent years sought to enforce its own claim on them — coalescing into a key point of tension between both nations.

Since 2021, Chinese Coast Guard vessels were reported to have used water cannons on Philippine ships resupplying forces at the shoal. And in October 2023, a Chinese vessel rammed into a Philippine Coast Guard ship, widely seen as an escalation.

"Philippine coastguardsmen and service members have been injured. That's a step up the ladder beyond a pressure campaign," Aquilino said.

The admiral is set to retire after he hands leadership of the Indo-Pacific Command to Adm. Samuel Paparo next month. During his tenure overseeing the region, Aquilino repeatedly warned of China as a primary growing danger to its neighbors.

Paparo, on his part, has also named China as one of the most pressing threats to US military interests in the region.

Beijing has been sharply increasing its military spending, pumping $230 billion into its defense budget in 2022, per a 2023 Pentagon report. While the US defense budget was nearly four times as large as China's that year, military observers say a one-to-one comparison can be misleading because Chinese spending typically stretches further due to lower labor and manufacturing costs.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent outside regular business hours by Business Insider.