The US diplomatic blitz regarding the South China Sea

Sep 21, 2022
Diplomat in a suit with his hands arms crossed on flag background
Image: iStock

The US is engaged in a public relations blitz to win the hearts and minds of Southeast Asia and demonise China. However it is replete with deceit and hypocrisy.

On 6 September the US Deputy Chief of Mission to Japan accused China of “threatening the safety of our waterways”. He added ”No nation should be able to dominate Indo-Pacific waters through coercion and outright intimidation. Might does not make right”. He apparently did not realise the hubris of the use of “our waterways” or the irony that these concerns could equally apply to the U.S. This was part of the US public relations blitz to win the hearts and minds of Southeast Asia and demonise China.. It implicitly stresses the US vision for the region under its hegemony and its needs to accomplish that– and criticises China for not complying with them. However it is replete with deceit and hypocrisy.

The U.S. envisions a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in which all countries adhere to its interpretation of international law. To demonstrate its interpretation thereof, it proclaims that it will “sail, fly and operate wherever international law allows”. It says it opposes ‘might makes right’, especially the threat or use of force to settle disputes. It also claims it supports ASEAN centrality in regional security affairs and that its multilateral diplomatic defence initiatives like the Quad and AUKUS are not aimed at China. These memes are often repeated by US analysts and government officials and reported without analysis in Western English language media. However, they deserve deeper examination.

The US construct of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and its mantra of protecting freedom of navigation (FON), beg the question of why they are needed. They implicitly assume that China is a threat to these principles. Although it has demonstrated its capability to do so as has the U.S. and others in their military exercises, it has not threatened commercial FON in the South China Sea and is unlikely to do so in peacetime.

However, the problem is that the U.S. cleverly conflates freedom of commercial navigation with the ‘freedom’ for its warships and warplanes to spy and threaten China from waters under its jurisdiction. When China objects in word and deed, it claims China is violating FON. But its objections to activities of military vessels in its 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone–while certainly debatable– do not threaten commercial freedom of navigation.

The U.S. undertakes Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to challenge other countries’ maritime claims that it says contravene the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Since the U.S is not party to the Convention and can not avail itself of its third party dispute settlement mechanism it uses the threat of military force to back its position.

But many countries do not agree with these unilateral U.S. legal interpretations and actions and fear that this ‘might makes right’ approach will destabilise the region. Like China, they oppose such FONOPs.

Then US Defence Secretary Mike Pompeo pompously proclaimed that the U.S. “opposes any attempt to use coercion or force to settle disputes” or to “make might right”. This pronouncement came on the heels of the first US deployment to the South China Sea since 2014 of two its most iconic symbols of power – two aircraft carrier strike groups –as well as a nuclear capable bomber– operating together.

Also hypocritical is the US claim to be in support of adherence to international law. The U.S. is the lone developed country that has not ratified the very Convention –UNCLOS– it claims to be the legal standard.

Moreover, the U.S. is hardly a paragon of virtue in abiding by international law. In 1986 the International Court of Justice determined that the U.S. had violated international law by supporting the Contras in their rebellion against the Nicaraguan government and by mining Nicaragua’s harbours. But the U.S. refused to abide by this legally binding decision.

Regarding ASEAN ‘centrality’ US President Joe Biden told the organisation that the U.S. was committed to it. Yet US- driven multilateral arrangements actions—the Quad, AUKUS, and military shows of force –tell another story.

The Quad –short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue– is a security forum of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. that purports to maintain a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. The Quad leaders have reaffirmed that they will “champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”. They alluded to what they consider China’s illegitimate claims in the South China Sea and the China ‘threat’ to freedom of navigation there. Quad leaders have launched the Indo-Pacific Partnership on Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). This could well be a military Trojan horse to gather military intelligence on China.

AUKUS is an agreement between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S for the U.S. and the U.K. to supply nuclear powered submarines and underwater drone technology to Australia. A major use of these assets will be to maintain the ‘balance of power’ in the South China Sea, thus locking Australia into the US military strategy to contain China.

Rather than supporting ASEAN centrality in regional security affairs, the U.S. and its partners undertook these actions in part because they felt that ASEAN has been ineffective in dealing with regional security issues like the South China Sea dispute. The U.S. and its allies went around and over them to form these pacts. Southeast Asian countries were not pleased to have been left out of the loop and fear that AUKUS will spark an arms race.

When parsed, the US public relations blitz is deceitful and hypocritical. The U.S. should stop playing diplomatic charades and call its policy and actions what they are –an attempt to encircle, contain and constrain China. The Southeast Asian countries can then have a clearer picture of the geopolitical situation and make up their minds accordingly.

An edited version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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