US hard line on South China Sea could cause a clash

On 13 July US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a confrontational policy statement on the South China Sea. The US followed up the statement with an across the board full court press of public relations, diplomacy and muscle flexing targeting China’s policy and actions in the South China Sea.

Contrary to the oft-expressed plea for peace and stability by Southeast Asian states, this statement and its follow-up have increased fears of a clash between the two major powers and the spillover effects thereof.

On 13 July US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a confrontational policy statement on the South China Sea. He assured all that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources ­[against China]”. He vowed that: “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 …” That presumably includes the threat of the use of force if necessary.

To China these words and actions were hostile and threatening. The US followed up the statement with a full court press of public relations, diplomacy and muscle flexing targeting China’s policy and actions in the South China Sea. Contrary to the oft-expressed plea for peace and stability by Southeast Asian states, this statement and its follow-up have increased fears of a clash between the two major powers and its spillover effects.

The immediate aftermath of this declaration saw a rash of tit-for-tat belligerent rhetoric and displays of power. The US deployed aircraft carrier strike groups and undertook provocative and dangerous spy plane probes as well as a Freedom of Navigation Operation. China responded with large military exercises in four seas – some simultaneously. It also fired its vaunted “carrier killer” missiles into the South China Sea.

Despite the risks, the US continued to push China into a corner. On 26 August, the Trump administration announced sanctions on companies that allegedly contributed to China’s construction and “militarization” of the South China Sea. It apparently hoped that Southeast Asian countries would follow suit although the ban may hurt them economically.

This was more evidence that the US had taken sides in the disputes. It is ignoring the fact that China’s rival claimants have also engaged in construction on their occupied features. China responded by pointing out that it considers construction on its own territory a sovereign right. This is a reasonable position.

The two also made competing appeals for support of the Southeast Asian states. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said: “The US can’t shoulder this burden [of constraining China] alone. We encourage like-minded nations to show solidarity and be more deliberate in aligning their policies on China in defence of our shared goals and interests.” China asked them to resolve the disputes through dialogue and requested that they not side with the US. Bringing the US-China struggle for hearts and mind into the open, he asserted: “ASEAN countries cannot become the cat’s paws of the United States and cannot become victims of the strategic confrontation between China and the US.”

Implementing the details of Pompeo’s policy pronouncement and follow-up will not contribute to peace and stability in the South China Sea — especially if it means the use of force. It is more likely to lead to a clash. Some of China’s rival claimants will likely take advantage of the promised US backing and stand up to China. Indeed, as an affront to China, some have already publicly expressed their support of both the 2016 arbitration decision against it and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the basis for resolving the disputes. Teodoro Locsin, Jr, the secretary of Foreign Affairs of erstwhile US ally the Philippines, said: “We need the US presence in Asia” to provide a balance of power.

When the US imposed sanctions on Chinese companies involved in the ‘militarization’ of its occupied features, Locsin recommended similar sanctions on such companies doing business in the Philippines.

Japan and Australia offered public political support. But ASEAN countries expressed concerns that this new US pressure was going to increase the threat to peace and stability in their region.

The ASEAN Foreign Ministers issued a statement 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.”

Vietnam supported the US move. But the response of other ASEAN members ranged from neutral to downright negative. Singapore was “neutral”. Indonesia said that any country’s support for Indonesian rights in the Natuna Sea is “normal“. Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called for the big powers “to avoid military posturing“. He said Malaysia must avoid being “dragged [into] and trapped” in a political tug of war between superpowers. He also worried that the US-China struggle would split ASEAN.

A “test” of the US proclamation may be in the offing. In late May, in what seemed like a harbinger of Pompeo’s policy declaration, the US and Australia deployed warships to the site of an ongoing dispute between China and Malaysia over exploration rights. Chinese warships soon arrived, making the situation more dangerous. According to the Commander of the US forces in that area, “There is no better signal of our support for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”  Now Malaysia’s National Oil Company Petronas is preparing to drill in an area off Sarawak that is within Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone but also within China’s nine-dash historic line claim. China may try to harass the drill ships. If it does, and if Malaysia asks for US military support, will it provide it?

The likely future is more of the same. The US and China will continue their military posturing and step up their diplomatic contest for the hearts and minds of ASEAN states. The Code of Conduct negotiations will drag on — in good part because of the continued behind-the-scenes US-China contest to control the content. The ASEAN members more frequently refer to the 2016 arbitration decision against China and UNCLOS to increase pressure on it to abide by them — largely to no avail. They will also increase the tone and tenor of their opposition to outside military intervention regarding their disputes with China — again with limited success.

In the longer term, if the US wants to contribute to peace and stability in the South China Sea, it must accommodate, or at least appear to accommodate, to some degree China’s international interests and aspirations there. On what issues, when, how, and how much must be pondered and negotiated.

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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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