Why the US policy initiative in the South China Sea is likely to fail

Aug 17, 2020

On 13 July US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a ‘new’ policy on the South China Sea, declaring that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources­. ­The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.”

But the reaction of many Southeast Asian countries’ was cautious or even negative. Indeed, it seems likely that this policy initiative will fail. Why is this so?

Pompeo vowed that “We will support countries…  who recognise that China has violated their legal territorial claims and maritime claims as well… We will provide them the assistance we can, whether that’s in multilateral bodies, whether that’s in ASEAN, whether that’s through legal responses. We will use all the tools we can . . .” presumably including military ‘tools’.

The U.S. followed up with a diplomatic full-court press on Southeast Asian countries to join it in its campaign against China’s policy and actions in the South China Sea. But the reaction of many Southeast Asian countries’ was cautious or negative. Indeed, it seems likely that this policy initiative will fail. Why is this so?

The main reason is that these states are concerned that like during the Cold War they will become pawns or surrogates of the great powers and suffer accordingly. It did not help dissuade this perception when a few days later Pompeo crossed the political Rubicorn by directly attacking the ruling Chinese Communist Party and calling for regime change saying “The world cannot be safe until China changes”.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper re-affirmed the US intention to further step up its naval and air presence in the South China Sea and poured gasoline on the fire by declaring “Goodwill and best wishes do not secure freedom. Strength does.” He outlined an across-the-board reorientation of the Department of Defense with the goal of countering China’s influence in Asia. He said that strengthening partnerships with Southeast Asian nations will provide the U.S. with an “asymmetric advantage” over China.

This ramped-up rhetoric was preceded and accompanied by a show of force with two aircraft carrier strike groups, nuclear-capable bombers, exercises for seizing freedom of navigation operation and intelligence probes.

After his statement on the South China Sea, Pompeo made follow up calls to ASEAN foreign ministers seeking their support for the ramped-up initiative against China. But he apparently did not get the response he had hoped for. As William Choong of the Singapore based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute said “Challenging China on values and democracy was “not going to take off” in Southeast Asia. We are not going to see the same kind of pushback that the U.S. expects to see in ASEAN. This whole confronting China and kicking down the front door, I don’t think that’s an ASEAN way.” That is not the only problem. They are also anxious as to whether the U.S. commitment will continue.

Some may worry that this ‘offensive’ is just a ploy to help Trump in his re-election campaign – and will not likely last beyond it.

To others, if the U.S. implements the policy, it will be a “double-edged sword.” It will have “the effect of both deterring but also potentially escalating matters with China. For Shariman Lockman of Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, the worst-case scenario is for things to escalate, and then the U.S. gets distracted and we get saddled with more Chinese ships in our waters.”

The US has certainly succeeded in arousing China. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said US-China relations had reached their lowest point since the countries re-established diplomatic relations in 1979. He described US policy towards China as “fraught with emotions and whims and McCarthyist bigotry.” He said, “It seems as if every Chinese investment is politically driven, every Chinese student is a spy and every cooperation initiative is a scheme with a hidden agenda.”

But the principle target of the US policy ’clarification’ was ASEAN and in particular China’s rival claimants within it –Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The ASEAN Foreign Ministers issued a statement on ASEAN’s 53rd anniversary reaffirming their intent to maintain Southeast Asia as “a region of peace, security, neutrality and stability” amid “growing uncertainties resulting from the changing geopolitical dynamics in the regional and global landscape.” In keeping with this sentiment most ASEAN members were subdued or even negative in their response to Pompeo’s statement and initiative. Indonesia and Singapore remained ‘neutral’ on this issue. Indonesia said that any country’s support for Indonesian rights in the Natuna Sea is “normal”.

It’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi added “ASEAN must always cooperate to maintain our regional peace and stability and not be dragged into the storm of geopolitical tension or be forced to choose sides”. Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein responded by calling for the big powers “to avoid military posturing”. A few days later he added that Malaysia must ensure it is not “dragged and trapped” in a political tug of war between superpowers. Hishamuddin is particularly concerned that the China-US struggle could split ASEAN.

Some leaders like President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines publicly stated that it will form policies regarding China that are in its best interests—not necessarily those of others including the U.S. It was announced that Duterte had declared a ban on Philippine naval exercises outside the Philippines 12 nautical mile territorial sea. Teodoro Locsin, the Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary said “We are sitting out this one”. Even Vietnam, China’s leading regional critic, did not ’call out’ China by name in response to Pompeo’s statement but rather “welcomed countries’ positions on the South China Sea that are in line with international laws.”

There are good reasons why a U.S. instigated anti-China front within ASEAN is unlikely to materialise. These nations each have their own economic and geopolitical reasons for not wanting to fall out of favor with China. China will likely use their needs as leverage to prevent such unity against it.

Indeed, it was never realistic to think ASEAN and its South China Sea claimants would jump on board the US China bashing bandwagon – especially if it involves military intervention. As Joseph Liow of Singapore’s National Technical University says, “While US patrols are instrumental to regional security, no ASEAN state would ever declare that because they do not want to be seen siding with Washington against Beijing.”

Other than Vietnam – and its support remains in question –it is doubtful that backing up the specifics with threat of use of force will be welcomed in Southeast Asia.

Despite these setbacks, some claim that the policy clarification and follow up were “smart”. The policy wonks may have thought that by rhetorically backing China’s rival claimants, it would convince them that US interests were more than just freedom of navigation for its own military intelligence probes of China. They may have even hoped that some would follow its example or even join it if it uses military force. If so this was dangerous wishful thinking.

This could be a big gamble for the U.S. and any that might join it. If the U.S. does not succeed with its military and political deterrence, it may have to choose between a credibility crushing back down and kinetic conflict with China. Indeed, although it had been avoiding this dilemma by ambiguity, now the cat is out of the bag. The U.S. must either back up its bold words or lose more credibility regarding its staying power and commitment to friends, allies and the region. Worse, it makes U.S. military intervention subject to the unilateral provocative actions of others –like Vietnam. That is not “smart” policy.

The U.S. loss of soft power in Southeast Asia has been accelerating since the Trump administration withdrew from the US proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) economic pact. To ASEAN nations, Trump’s “America First” mantra makes them feel as if they are on their own. A more aggressive diplomatic and military posture and presence could force regional nations to choose between it and China, and the U.S. may not like the outcome.

Obviously appealing to Southeast Asian nations to join it in an existential ideological struggle with China is not enough. The US has discovered the hard way that its soft power relationships in Southeast Asia are neither as deep nor as enduring as it thought. The question is whether or not the US can integrate its hard power with its soft power in the right balance to become the premier smart power in the region. Indeed, the only way to rebuild the integrity and robustness of its relationships in Southeast Asia is for the U.S. to demonstrate respect for their self -defined national interests to a degree equal to its own. Otherwise this ‘new’ US policy initiative- like others before it- is likely to fail.

A considerably shorter and different version of this piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post

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