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A Coming Shift In US Security Policy In The South China Sea? – Analysis

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The new movie “Vice” purports to tell the story of former US Vice President Dick Cheney’s rise to power and the damage he did to the U.S., other countries, and US standing in the world.  Cheney and his cohorts are depicted as ruthless, reckless, and rapacious in their lust for power and in their use of it to reshape US policy to match their vision. My immediate reaction was: “could ‘this’ really happen this way?  Wouldn’t those around him refuse, object to, or –like Jim Mattis—resign in protest of such deceitful, possibly illegal maneuvers rather than aid and abet them by their silence? Or did they believe– like he did– that the ends justified the means?”

Whether fact or fiction, the movie raises troubling questions about the security policy of the US government and those who lead it. In particular, could history be repeating itself? This question should be addressed to and by those around and under the influence of John Bolton, the National Security Advisor confirmed only eight months ago. 

Bolton is referenced in the movie as being part of the Cheney cabal.  Like Cheney he is controversial to say the least. When he was nominated for the powerful post, I wrote that “There is great fear that he will run roughshod over the prevailing system, setting the world alight and leaving a legal and political mess for future generations in the process.” Bolton is an iconoclast –and an extreme American nationalist. He believes that US sovereignty and freedom of action are wrongly constrained by international law, multilateral organizations—especially the UN—and global treaties. To Bolton these are political impediments to be ignored or re-interpreted as expedience dictates. He strongly prefers unilateralism or if appropriate “coalitions of the willing” created and led by the U.S. and acting independently of the UN. “https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/boltons-threat-to-international-law-and-order  I am not alone in my assessment.  A recent article in the conservative The National Interest calls him a “nationalist uber hawk”. 

Like Cheney he has wide experience in government and would like to make US policy and actions more ‘muscular’. He has been an Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security in the State Department. While in that position, he tried to change long standing international law to enable unilateral extra-UN interdiction of other countries’ flagged vessels on the high seas.  As Ambassador to the United Nations, he harshly criticized and tried to reshape it in the US favor.  He was an early supporter of the Iraq War and continues to aggressively defend his position while many others involved in that decision have tried to distance themselves from it. He also has continuously supported military action and regime change in North Korea and Iran.

 Bolton’s style is reputedly similar to that of Cheney– at least as depicted in the movie-– aggressive, manipulative, secretive, conniving, combative, coercive, and vindictive. Like Cheney his diverse government experience means he may well have ‘his people’ in many branches of government, including in the Defense Department.  Mira Ricardel, Bolton’s deputy, who was summarily fired by the White House, and who often clashed with Mattis, is rumored to be headed for the Defense Department.  Also like Cheney, he wants to be much more than an advisor.  He wants to make US security policy.  Moreover, he does not want to hear opposing views.  Thus there is little consideration of options and more important, an increased risk of impulsive escalation. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/13/us/politics/bolton-iran-pentagon.html

He now has the opportunity to do so. Mattis seemed to be able to keep both Bolton and Trump in check. But he is gone.  His interim replacement, Patrick Shanahan –his Deputy and a former Boeing executive–had no prior political, military or foreign policy experience before assuming the Deputy position. US President Donald Trump is clearly increasingly distracted by the ‘Russia probe’ and trade issues. Moreover despite Trump’s often belligerent rhetoric, he is not so quick to use military power.

Nevertheless he shows no signs of restraining Bolton’s freelancing : including “a China focused, hawkish Africa policy, proclaiming a troika of tyranny in Latin America” and increasing pressure on Iran.  Bolton has called Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, “dangerous” and said the United States was determined to keep international sea lanes open. “This is something the Chinese need to understand,” he said, adding that allies including Britain and Australia were also sailing through the South China Sea to make this point. On the sidelines of the recent ASEAN Summits, Bolton made clear that the U.S. is preparing to build up its forces in the region and in particular its patrols in the South China Sea. https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/duterte-says-china-already-in-possession-of-south-china-sea-tells-us-to-end-military

China has proposed a clause in the draft ASEAN-China Code of Conduct for the South China Sea stating that “the Parties shall not hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.”  In apparent reference to this proposal, Bolton said that “the US would oppose any agreements between China and other claimants that limit free passage to international shipping and that American naval vessels would continue to sail through these waters”. http://www.atimes.com/article/us-drops-the-gauntlet-in-the-south-china-sea/

He elaborated that “any COC has to be acceptable to all countries that have legitimate maritime and naval rights to transit and other associated rights that we don’t want to see infringed”. That left no doubt that the U.S. was ‘all in’ regarding the China-ASEAN COC negotiations and that the COC has to be acceptable to it even though it is not a party to it or the negotiations. This may be the kiss of death for a successful negotiation and for ASEAN unity on this matter. http://www.atimes.com/article/us-drops-the-gauntlet-in-the-south-china-sea/

At least in the near future, Bolton will have increased influence on US security policy and actions.  Indeed, according to the New York Times, Bolton appears to have now concentrated control of security matters.

This shift in control may be incipiently manifest in the South China Sea.  The US-China confrontation there is considered one of the world’s major potential flash points for kinetic conflict between big powers.  So it is critical for regional stability that the U.S. gets its South China Sea policy and tactics ‘right’.

There has already been a recent incremental shift to a more aggressive US military posture there.  Now the Pentagon’s top Asia official, Randall Schriver, has just urged Australia and other US allies to boost their military presence in the South China Sea. He said ” I think what could potentially bring more pressure on the Chinese is other partners and allies joining in these activities” there. ” If not freedom of navigation operation–just joint patrols, presence operations”.  Given the increasingly tense state of US-China relations, this is quite provocative. Such US led military ‘incrementalism’ there is compatible with Bolton’s penchant for taking greater risks than his recent predecessors.   The context of stepped up US military ‘shows of force’ there and Bolton’s increased influence on security policy raises the question of whether Schriver’s renewed appeal to allies for help in the South China Sea is a simple continuation of Mattis’ policies or indicative of a new more pugnacious military posture initiated or encouraged by Bolton. 

This is but one example of what US security policy might look like totally under Bolton’s control. No major abrupt shifts but incrementally increased pressure until there is the desired (or undesired) response. Asia and the world should be on guard against a repeat of the Cheney debacle. Whether the new US Defense Secretary will have the personal clout and connections to counterbalance impulsive escalatory decisions by Bolton on South China Sea issues and elsewhere is an open question.

This piece first appeared in the IPP Review. http://ippreview.com/index.php/Blog/single/id/879.html

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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