It is Orwellian to say that America has preserved the peace in Asia.

On 14 July, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, David Stilwell, gave a speech elaborating on US China policy in the South China Sea, and further increased tensions with China there.

On 13 July US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a policy statement on the South China Sea. Pompeo’s declaration has been parsed, praised and panned. https://johnmenadue.com/mark-valencia-the-us-south-china-sea-policy-statement-little-new-and-laced-with-hypocrisy/ The next day, his Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, David Stilwell gave a follow up speech elaborating Pompeo’s statement. Like Pompeo’s it helped tighten already taught tensions with China.

Its thrust was to paint China as the sole villain in destabilizing the situation in the South China Sea. According to Stilwell, China “wants to replace international law with rule by threats and coercion.” But many think it is the U.S. that is acting outside the norm there. The U.S. –alone among maritime powers– has declined to join some 168 other states that have ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Yet it uses warships to challenge others’ claims and regimes that it thinks violate it. This includes prominently any that ‘illegally’ restrict its ‘rights’ to freedom of navigation for its warships.

Stilwell raises the old canard that China is threatening commercial navigation. He warns that “what is at stake in the South China Sea has a direct impact on every nation and person who relies on freedom of the seas and the free movement of maritime commerce to ensure their nation’s prosperity”.

This is nonsense. China has not threatened freedom of commercial navigation and is unlikely to do so in peace time. China does object to US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes that it believes violate its laws and UNCLOS and are a threat its security. Stilwell is knowingly conflating the two ‘freedoms’ of navigation. https://www.amazon.com/Freedoms-Navigation-Asia-Pacific-Region-Strategic/dp/0367189739

Moreover, in China’s view, the U.S. is violating the Convention by undertaking marine scientific research in and over its Exclusive Economic Zone without permission and undertaking activities there that damage marine life. Moreover, for China, and others in the region, it is the U.S. that is using “threats and coercion” to enforce its legal position regarding “freedom of navigation.”

Stilwell asserts that the U.S. is building “on America’s long record in the Pacific of preserving the peace _ _ _.” This statement overlooks the U.S. support of brutal dictators in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia – where it had a role in overthrowing Sukarno. It also ignores its sordid role in massive environmental destruction and the millions of military and civilian deaths in Vietnam and Laos, and in what some say created the conditions in which the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. It is Orwellian to say that America has preserved the peace in Asia.

The U.S. has also repeatedly lambasted China for refusing to accept and abide by an arbitration decision against it rendered through a process mandated by UNCLOS. Stilwell pompously proclaims that the U.S. “supports nations in standing up for their sovereign rights and interests _ _ _.” I will be kind and assume he is unaware of the ongoing U.S. role in the sad saga of the Chagosians in the Indian Ocean.

The U.K. – in a move reminiscent of its colonial rule – has refused—with continued US support– to comply with a UN – set deadline to return its former colony – – the Chagos Islands – – to Mauritius. A 2019 International Court of Justice(ICJ) advisory opinion found that the U.K. had violated international law and should terminate “its administration of the Chagos Islands as rapidly as possible”. A 2017 UN General Assembly resolution requesting the ICJ advisory opinion was supported by 94 countries – – but vehemently opposed by the U.S.

Why would such a supposed champion of the existing international order and leading critic of China’s failure to abide by it oppose such a resolution? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Diego Garcia, an important strategic US base that it leases from the U.K. is part of the Chagos Islands.

The indigenous population was intimidated by the U. K. and the U.S. to leave the island and denied return. The U.K. then leased the atoll to the U.S. and it built a large naval and air force base. It provided an air base for U.S. military operations during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Operation Desert Fox, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and allegedly for CIA renditions. https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/09/asia/chagos-islands-feature-intl/index.html The atoll continues to play a key role in America’s military strategy regarding the Indian Ocean and its environs –including as a base for bomber training missions over the South China Sea.

The U.K. behavior and its defence of it is that the U.S. supports was strikingly similar to that of China regarding the arbitration decision against it. The U.K. maintained that the dispute was a bilateral matter between it and Mauritius and indicated it would reject any ICJ decision against it – and it has.

The truth of the South China Sea situation is that China is challenging US hegemony there and the US is resisting this challenge in every way it can. Indeed, the South China Sea has become the crux of the China-US contest. The current U.S. approach there seems to be to “meet China’s greater assertiveness with a more assertive use of force of its own.” Indeed, according to US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the US is aggressively building “the capabilities that we need to deter China from committing to a major confrontation”.

The ‘new’ US policy declaration declares that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign right to offshore resources_ _.” The U.S. seems to be using the China-Southeast Asia territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea as an opportunity and excuse to build these “capabilities” and its military presence. In doing so it may hope that it will encourage these states to ‘stand up’ to China and thus irrevocably draw some to its side.

But China sees US actions there as purposely confrontational and raising tensions. ; It may even think that as US President Donald Trump’s re-election chances wane, he may approve confronting China in an attempt to unite the country behind him.

In sum, Stilwell’s ‘elaboration’ was just more of the same hubris, hyperbole and hypocrisy.

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Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst focused on Asia and currently Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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