Going into the recent ASEAN Summit in Singapore there were hopes that some progress would be made on the US-China-ASEAN complex of disputes in the South China Sea. But the Summits have come and gone and, if anything, the situation in the South China Sea is more complicated than before. Although the contentiousness of the disputes between China and ASEAN claimants has waned, the US-China rivalry for dominance there has supplanted them as the preeminent security issue for ASEAN and the region. Indeed, ASEAN- China political relations, and in particular their negotiations on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC) are now conflated with- and will be strongly influenced by- the US-China rivalry.
How did the situation become more “complicated” than it already was?
In the months preceding the Summits, the U.S. and China had already stepped up their contest of words and actions. https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/united-states/article/2172977/south-china-sea-us-and-chinese-military
Then the long anticipated 9 November Second US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue came and went with no apparent progress on any of the dangerous issues between them – especially their confrontation in the South China Sea.
Observers in both countries had hoped that meeting would lead to some tension -lowering agreements or at least public statements from both to that effect. For example, Zhao Minghao writing in the Global Times said “It is expected this dialogue will ease the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington _ _.” http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1126618.shtml Randall Schriver, a top Pentagon official for Asia said the talks would include “risk reduction efforts that the two countries can undertake which aim to drive down the chance of an inadvertent clash”. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-mattis/how-mattis-is-trying-to-keep-u-s-china-tensions-from-boiling-over However, the two delegations mainly talked past each other, bluntly restating their sharply opposing positions. Tensions remained high.
Hopes for an improved South China Sea situation via the ASEAN Summits were dashed when on his way to Singapore, Pence called out China saying that if it wants to avoid an all-out cold war with the U.S., it must change its behavior http://www.atimes.com/article/pence-expect-cold-war-if-china-doesnt-concede-on-trade-security/ When he got there, he told the ASEAN leaders that ‘there is no place for “empire and aggression” in the Indo-Pacific’ , presumably a warning to China. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-asean-summit-pence/pence-says-empire-and-aggression-have-no-place-in-indo-pacific-idUSKCN1NK084
Coincident with Pence’s attendance at the Summits, the US Navy carried out dual aircraft carrier operations to the east of the Philippines. This was both a show of force that backed up the US commitment to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and a demonstration that “the US Navy will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows” https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=107783
On the sidelines of the Summits, US National Security Advisor John Bolton made it 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
There had also been some hope as well as hype that the ASEAN-China agreement on a Single Draft Negotiating Text (SDNT) for a Code of Conduct (COC) was a sign of progress. http://www.atimes.com/article/us-drops-the-gauntlet-in-the-south-china-sea. But then it was revealed that new very contentious issues had been added to the draft. China has proposed a clause 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.” Agreement to this proposed clause would gravely damage the alliances and relations of Thailand and the Philippines with the U.S. China has also proposed that “co-operation shall not be conducted with companies from countries outside the region.”
In a clear rebuke to these proposals the U.S., Australia and Japan issued a joint statement that the COC should be “consistent with existing international law, as reflected in UNCLOS; _ _ not prejudice the interests of third parties or the rights of all states under international law; _ _ reinforce existing regional architecture; and _ _ strengthen parties’ commitments to cease actions that would complicate or escalate disputes. “https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/08/284940.htm
At the Summits, 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 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 in making this public may have doomed them as well. Meanwhile Chinese Premier Li Keqiang insisted that “China would play a major role in writing” the COC.
Now it is crystal clear that the US-China rivalry will have a major influence on the negotiations. China has previously said that the pace of the COC negotiations may depend in good part on whether or not it perceives that the U.S. is “meddling” in them. Although it probably was doing so before behind the scenes, what is new is that it now is publicly doing so.
The pressure from the two great powers is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for ASEAN members. The host of the ASEAN Singapore Summits, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said “the rivalry between the U.S. and China is proving awkward for Southeast Asian Nations that do not want to have to choose between their friends.” https://www.apnews.com/3d18b2d74893438ab84eb907cc299372 However, they better prepare to deal with it as the pressure to “choose” shows no sign of ameliorating. Indeed, it is intensifying and ASEAN unity and centrality in regional security are clearly being eroded. The South China Sea situation and its impact on Southeast Asian security is more likely to get worse before it gets better – if it ever does.
*Mark J. Valencia, Senior adjunct Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China
This piece first appeared in The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2018/11/asean-summits-another-lost-opportunity-for-progress-on-the-south-china-sea/