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Between Scylla And Charybdis: ASEAN And US-China Contest For South China Sea – Analysis

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ASEAN and its members are in an increasingly dangerous dilemma. They are under mounting pressure to choose between the U.S. and China in their ideological-driven struggle for political and military dominance in the South China Sea. In response they are maneuvering to maintain their ‘neutrality’ and ASEAN ‘centrality’ in international affairs affecting the region.  This piece examines their perspectives and roles in this great power competition, how they are adapting to it, and what—if anything– ASEAN can do about it.

Over the past year, China has taken actions that have alarmed rival South China Sea claimants and stoked the US narrative that China is a threat to the region.  Because these small and medium states – alone or in combination- are no military match for China, their response has been to maneuver diplomatically, both in front and behind the scenes.  However, the U.S. sees this situation as an opportunity to further its own agenda vis a vis China and co-opt these states in the process.

On 13 July US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heightened tension by announcing a ‘new’ policy on the South China Sea.  The statement’s political core was that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources­. ­The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” https://www.state.gov/u-s-position-on-maritime-claims-in-the-south-china-sea/   Pompeo vowed that “We will support countries_ _ who recognize that China has violated their legal territorial claims and maritime claims as well . . .  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 . . .” presumably including military ‘tools’.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper outlined an across-the-board reorientation of the Department of Defense with the goal of countering China’s influence in Asia.  He said that strengthening partnerships with Southeast Asian nations will provide the U.S. with an “asymmetric advantage” over China.

The U.S. followed up these statements with a diplomatic full court press on Southeast Asian countries to join it in its campaign against China’s policy and actions in the South China Sea. https://www.wsj.com/articles/secretary-of-state-pompeo-to-urge-chinese-people-to-change-the-communist-party-11595517729;  https://www.state.gov/the-south-china-sea-southeast-asias-patrimony-and-everybodys-own-backyard/  Pompeo made follow up calls to ASEAN foreign ministers seeking their support for the ramped up US initiative against China in the South China Sea. https://www.urdupoint.com/en/world/pompeo-malaysian-foreign-minister-discuss-ma-994674.html  But he apparently did not get the response he had hoped for. Indeed, their reaction ranged from cautious to negative. 

The principle target of the US policy ‘clarification’ was ASEAN and in particular China’s rival claimants within it –Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.  But the response of ASEAN was underwhelming. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers issued a statement on ASEAN’s 53rd anniversary 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.” https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-08-09/ASEAN-FMs-vow-to-maintain-Southeast-Asia-as-region-of-neutrality–SO9FhXLYqI/index.html  

The individual states are concerned that like during the Cold War they will become pawns or surrogates of the great powers and suffer accordingly. https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-07-15/China-not-afraid-of-sanctions-related-to-South-China-Sea-issue-S9d9vqkHTy/index.html   As William Choong of the Singapore based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute said “Challenging China on values and democracy was “not going to take off” in Southeast Asia.  We are not going to see the same kind of pushback that the U.S. expects to see in ASEAN.  This whole confronting China and kicking down the front door, I don’t think that’s an ASEAN way.” 

To others, if the U.S. implements the policy, it will be a “double-edged sword.”  It will have “the effect of both deterring but also potentially escalating matters with China_ _ _.  For Shariman Lockman of Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies,  the worst-case scenario is for things to escalate, and then the U.S. gets distracted_ _ and we get saddled with more Chinese ships in our waters.” https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/15/pompeo-south-china-sea-nine-dash-line-unclos/

That is not the only problem.  Some are also afraid that even if they cooperate, the U.S. commitment may not continue. Indeed, they think that this ‘offensive’ may be just a ploy to help Trump in his re-election campaign – and that it may not last beyond it.

Indonesia and Singapore remained ‘neutral’ on this issue. https://www.asianewsday.com/indonesia-singapore-stay-neutral-on-us-china-dispute-despite-pompeos-south-china-sea-outreach/  Indonesia said that any country’s support for Indonesian rights in the Natuna Sea is “normal”. Its Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi added “ASEAN must always cooperate to maintain our regional peace and stability and not be dragged into the storm of geopolitical tension or be forced to choose sides”. https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-08-09/ASEAN-FMs-vow-to-maintain-Southeast-Asia-as-region-of-neutrality–SO9FhXLYqI/index.html Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said that Malaysia must ensure it is not “dragged and trapped” in a political tug of war between superpowers. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/south-china-sea-malaysia-should-not-be-trapped-hishammuddin-12993032   Hishamuddin is particularly concerned that the China-US struggle could split ASEAN.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines publicly stated that it will form policies regarding China that are in its best interests—not necessarily those of others including the U.S. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202008/01/WS5f24b9a2a31083481725d894.html   Even Vietnam, China’s leading regional critic, did not ‘call out’ China by name in response to Pompeo’s statement but only “welcomed countries’ positions on the South China Sea that are in line with international laws.” https://vietnamnews.vn/politics-laws/770705/viet-nam-condemns-chinas-illegal-moves-confirms-respect-for-international-law-in-south-china-sea.html

There are good reasons why these countries have difficulty choosing between the two. While they may be more ideologically aligned with the U.S., many have economic and longer term geopolitical reasons that make them reluctant to confront China militarily – even with U.S. backing. https://johnmenadue.com/why-australias-strategic-situation-is-far-worse-than-we-think-afr-6-7-20/;https://nationalinterest.org/blog/skeptics/south-china-sea-showdown-heres-how-america-trying-contain-china-its-own-backyard    China will likely use their needs as leverage to prevent such unity against it. As such, Pompeo’s policy clarification overestimated Southeast Asian countries supportive responses.  https://warontherocks.com/2020/05/learning-in-the-south-china-sea-the-u-s-response-to-the-west-capella-standoff/https://www.reuters.com/article/us-malaysia-china-southchinasea/malaysia-calls-for-peaceful-end-to-months-long-south-china-sea-standoff-idUSKCN2250GW

These states are particularly concerned with the military buildup in the region. It was never realistic to think ASEAN and its South China Sea claimants would jump on board the US China bashing bandwagon – especially if it involves military intervention.  As Joseph Liow of Singapore’s National Technical University says, “While US patrols are instrumental to regional security, no ASEAN state would ever declare that because they do not want to be seen siding with Washington against Beijing.”  https://newscolony.com/asean-stays-on-the-sidelines-as-south-china-sea-tensions-mount/

Other than Vietnam – and its support for military intervention is questionable https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3095058/us-pledges-help-south-china-sea-vietnam-wary-antagonising–it is doubtful that backing up the specifics with threat of use of force will be welcomed in Southeast Asia. 

A more aggressive US diplomatic and military posture and presence could force regional nations to choose between it and China, and the U.S. may not like the outcome. Indeed, the US is discovering the hard way that its soft power relationships in Southeast Asia are neither as deep nor as enduring as it thought. The only way to rebuild the integrity and robustness of its relationships in Southeast Asia is for it to demonstrate respect for their self -defined national interests to a degree equal to its own.

The ASEAN countries could contribute to conflict avoidance by individually or preferably multilaterally expressing opposition to the U.S. and Chinese military presence.

There has been some movement in this direction. After one incident in October 2018, Ng Eng Hen, Defense Minister of Singapore, a US Strategic Partner, said that “Some of the [US-China] incidents are from assertion of principles, but we recognize that the price of any physical incident is one that is too high and unnecessary to either assert or prove your position.” https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/asean-nations-express-concern-over-us-china-tensions-in-south-10847704

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has said that ” _ _ the threat of confrontation and trouble in the waterway came from outside the region.” https://ww.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2173174/south-china-sea-asean-beijing-continue-wrk-towarss-code  Then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad argued that “big warships [in the South China Sea] may cause incidents and that will lead to tension.” https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/mahathir-tells-us-no-warships-in-asean-waters-but-small-patrol-boats-are-fine  In response to the US statement, Malaysia’s new Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein called for the big powers “to avoid military posturing”. https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/malaysian/South-China-Sea-07152020152750.html#:~:text=Malaysia%20on%20Wednesday%20called%20for,claims%20in%20the%20contested%20waterway

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has said that it is “important for ASEAN to keep sending out messages to great powers involved in the dispute to maintain regional peace and stability in the South China Sea”. https://jakartaglobe.id/news/indonesia-encourages-asean-china-to-resume-south-china-sea-coc-negotiation Considering previous relevant statements by high-level Indonesian government officials, this appears to be a plea to both China and the US to back off and exercise more restraint in their military operations in the region.  https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1873456/indonesia-calls-us-china-restrain-themselves-lashes-us

However ASEAN is far from united on this issue—in part because it primarily concerns China’s rival claimants-Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. China claims that it has “interests” in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone northeast of Natuna, but Indonesia rejects such a claim. So far the voicing of these concerns has not had the desired effect.  Escalating and strengthening chorus of concern could help reduce the potential for conflict and confrontation. https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/blunting-chinas-south-china-sea-new-normal-quest-starts-with-the-southeast-asian-claimants/

Indeed, when they run out of diplomatic wiggle room, this may be the only option  other than casting their lot with China or the US.

This article first appeared in CIMSEC http://cimsec.org/between-scylla-and-charybdis-asean-and-the-u-s-china-contest-for-the-south-china-sea/45917

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. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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