By Mariel Lucenio
The acting U.S. defense secretary on Tuesday wrapped up a visit to Indonesia and the Philippines, during which he emphasized Washington’s commitment to enhancing their defense capabilities as well as ensuring a free and open South China Sea and Indo-Pacific.
Christopher Miller became the third senior Trump administration official to visit Southeast Asia since October as part of a campaign by the United States to boost freedom of navigation amid Beijing’s increased militarization in the disputed waterway.
On Tuesday in Manila, his final stop on the brief two-nation trip, Miller announced the transfer of U.S. $29 million in American-made defense equipment to the Philippines. While in Jakarta on Monday, he floated the idea of a joint U.S.-Australia-Indonesia military exercise.
“In meetings with Philippine counterparts, Acting Secretary Miller underscored the importance of the U.S.-Philippine alliance to national and regional security, and discussed opportunities for greater bilateral security cooperation to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the U.S. Embassy in Manila said in a statement Tuesday.
During Miller’s visit to Jakarta the day before, “the Secretary emphasized the importance that the Department of Defense places on the bilateral partnership and in securing a free and open South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region,” a statement from the Pentagon said about his meetings with Indonesian government officials.
During his stopover in Manila, Miller announced the transfer of military equipment, including sniper and anti-bomb gear, to senior Philippine military officials. This came on top of Washington handing over $18 million worth of missiles and other weapons, and a ScanEagle aerial drone, to the Philippines last month.
The Trump administration has paid special attention to Southeast Asia since U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in July that Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea were illegal. Washington, he said then, stood with its Southeast Asian allies “in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources.”
In September, America’s top diplomat attended a virtual summit of his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He followed that up the next month with visits to Vietnam and Indonesia, as part of a five-nation Asian tour. On both occasions he criticized China’s military expansionism in the South China Sea.
In November, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien visited Vietnam and the Philippines. In Hanoi, he described how the Trump administration had taken “a firm stance against China’s bullying coercion in the South China Sea.”
In Manila, O’Brien reminded the Filipinos how Washington earlier this year had “formally aligned our position on the South China Sea with the arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling.”
China, which claims nearly all of the South China Sea, has never recognized a 2016 international arbitration ruling, which went in favor of the Philippines. Beijing has also refuted the legal basis for nearly all of Beijing’s expansive maritime and territorial claims in the sea.
Miller excoriates China in article
For his part, Miller addressed at length “the coercive and destabilizing activities of the People’s Republic of China in the region, particularly in the South China Sea,” in an article he wrote for local newspapers in the Philippines on Monday.
At a summit in June ASEAN leaders had issued “a clear rebuke” of China, and for the first time agreed that all maritime disputes must be settled based on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas, Miller wrote in the op-ed piece.
“The implications are profound, reflecting the region’s growing recognition that the PRC’s actions are placing at risk the principles that the free world holds dear,” Miller said.
He accused China of exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic, by deploying its navy, coast guard and maritime militia in the South China Sea.
“The PRC has conducted live-fire military exercises over disputed territory and waters; harassed longstanding and lawful Malaysian and Vietnamese oil and gas development; sent escorted fishing fleets into Southeast Asian countries’ exclusive economic zones; and continued to militarize its man-made “islands,” breaching its own commitments to ASEAN,” Miller said.
Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across the sea region were unlawful, Miller wrote, as he condemned what called a campaign by Beijing to bully its smaller neighbors.
Washington, he assured Filipino readers, would maintain its presence in the region, with frequent freedom of navigation operations as well as naval and air patrols.
In addition to China, six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
Chinese embassy reacts to Miller’s article
China’s envoy to Manila openly criticized Miller’s visit to Southeast Asia.
It was intended “not to promote regional peace and stability, but to create chaos and confrontation in the region” towards the end of the Trump presidency, Ambassador Huang Xilian said in response to Miller’s article.
Washington is the one destabilizing the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region, the Chinese envoy said.
“It is the U.S. that has taken provocative actions increasingly, with the purpose of destabilizing the SCS and hijacking regional countries onto its chariot to serve its own domestic politics and geopolitical agenda,” Huang said in a statement.
The U.S. “has breached its longstanding commitment of not taking sides, and blatantly interfered in the territorial disputes. [T]he U.S. keeps increasing and showing off its military presence in the South China Sea … the U.S. is seeking to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN countries,” he added.