On the South China Sea, the US and Asean are increasingly on different pages
Mark Valencia says it’s becoming clear America’s concern for a rules-based order and freedom of navigation is not shared by a Southeast Asia more worried about the impact of a US-China power struggle on domestic stability
Cracks between the US and Southeast Asian nations have been growing with regard to security interests in the South China Sea. These differences have remained just below the surface for some time but are now plainly visible under the strain of the burgeoning struggle between China and the US for regional dominance. Nevertheless, many analysts and US government officials continue to assume that their interests are similar or even identical. These differences should be acknowledged and policy recommendations adjusted accordingly before the cracks become crevasses.
A good example of this misconception is a recent article published by the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative of Washington’s influential Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The article’s title, “Have we already lost the South China Sea?”, begs the questions of who “we” are and what is meant by “lost”.
The article conflates, confuses and misrepresents US interests and Southeast Asian claimants’ interests. It lists US interests in the South China Sea as “defence of the rules-based order, preservation of regional security (including the safety of allies) and freedom of navigation”. I would add continuity of US domination of the region as the overall goal.
But the interests of the Southeast Asian claimants – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – to features and maritime space in the South China Sea are quite different in kind and priority. Unlike the US, which has no territorial or jurisdictional claims in the area, they want to realise their sovereignty claims and access to maritime resources in what they consider their legitimate exclusive economic zones and beyond. But, more importantly, they want to avoid getting caught up and having to choose sides in the burgeoning competition and possible violent conflict between China and the US for pre-eminence in the region.
The US claims it is defending freedom of navigation. But the Southeast Asian claimants do not share the same concerns as the US on this issue. Of course, all the Southeast Asian countries – claimants and non-claimants alike – want and need the seas to be open and free for commerce. However, China has never threatened commercial navigation and is unlikely to do so in peacetime. Its economy depends on it as much.
But the US purposely conflates freedom of commercial navigation with freedom to undertake military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes against China and others in the region. It then alleges that China’s interference with probes by these military vessels and aircraft in and over China’s exclusive economic zone violates freedom of navigation. But China argues that it is not challenging freedom of navigation itself but US abuse of this right by its military. US surveillance missions include active “tickling” of China’s coastal defences to provoke and observe a response, interference with shore-to-ship and submarine communications, and tracking China’s new nuclear submarines for potential targeting as they enter and exit their base. In China’s view, these are not passive intelligence collection activities usually tolerated by most states. Nor are these activities protected by the principle of “freedom of navigation”, because they are not uses of the ocean for only peaceful purposes as required by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Southeast Asian countries have not explicitly taken a position on this aspect of the complex issue, individually or collectively. This is understandable because it does not directly involve them; it is essentially a US-China dispute that can only be resolved between the two parties. However, its resolution would be warmly welcomed by all in Southeast Asia. Otherwise, many fear they will be used as pawns in an intensifying great power struggle.
The US also claims it wants to maintain the rules-based order in the South China Sea. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is a key part of that order. The US says that Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are in violation of aspects of the convention and has challenged these violations militarily with freedom of navigation operations. Ironically, unlike most of Asia and indeed the world, the US has not ratified the convention and may even be violating some of its provisions. This undermines its credibility to “name and shame” others as violators of the treaty.
Rather than maintenance of the “rules-based order” and freedom of navigation for surveillance purposes, the prime security concern of many Southeast Asian nations is domestic instability. The governments in Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand have a somewhat precarious hold on power. Islamic State is active in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, the last of which is preoccupied not only with a seemingly intractable rebellion in its Muslim south but also fighting a drug epidemic that is taking up considerable resources. Moreover, the region’s de facto leader, Indonesia, seems more internally than externally focused.
The concern is that competition between China and the US for influence and military dominance in the region could spill over into these countries’ domestic politics, stirring conflict between the different groups. This happened during the cold war and may happen again with greater intensity now that many of these governments are hedging between the two. Indeed, with the US political backstop for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations waning under President Donald Trump, some are recalculating their stance vis-à-vis China.
Asean and the South China Sea have become the venue for the tactical thrusts and parries of the China-US struggle for regional supremacy.
Some Southeast Asian countries want to preserve Asean unity so they can collectively play an effective role in the security of their region, rather than see the grouping become irrelevant. But unity won’t be easily achieved.
Both China and the US are pressuring various members to support their interests in the South China Sea. After all, neither China nor the US values Asean unity above their own narrow and more immediate national interests.
Obviously, some Asean members have succumbed to their pressure. Indeed, the South China Sea issue is perhaps the forerunner of a new security paradigm in Southeast Asia – one in which the security interests of the US and that of many Southeast Asian nations increasingly diverge.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China