Many in the West remain uncomfortable with the rise of a nation that does not share the same values. China’s military development is one cause of US unease, yet it is necessary to help safeguard maritime security and combat terrorism.
The overlapping claims on territory and resource control defy easy solutions, but there are areas of clear common interests. Joining hands on environmental issues, tourism and humanitarian relief will help states develop ways to work together.
With or without the China factor, bringing in extra-regional great maritime powers could risk Asean’s independence. Stability in the South China Sea is paramount, and clear lines must be drawn between US-China competition and multilateral concerns.
Given US interference, Asean’s growing appetite for international arbitration, and little hope of concluding a code of conduct, South China Sea waters can only become more choppy and conflict-prone.
Covid-19 has infected US military bases, grounded ships and cancelled military drills. But, for the US, the South China Sea is indispensable to its hegemony in the Western Pacific, and a vital issue in an election year.