Are Asean members still willing to support a provocative US in the South China Sea?

Mark J. Valencia says Asean claimants to features in the South China Sea are wavering in their support for a provocative American presence in the region, as they seek to find the right balance between China and the US

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 1:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 1:00am

The recent meeting between US Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Chinese President Xi Jinping did not go very well on matters relating to the South China Sea.

The US has stepped up its confrontational policy and actions vis-à-vis China there – and China has reacted with its own provocative statements and actions. However, political support for the US military presence among Asean claimants – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – is becoming critical of America’s public rationale for its policy.

After all, the US claims it is essentially protecting them – and the sea lanes upon which they depend – from bullying by China.

Now, such support seems to be wavering. That will be a growing problem for the US as it tries to prevent China’s soft and hard power from dominating the region. The concern among Association of Southeast Asian Nation countries is that they are being forced to choose sides.

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Let’s look at some key states’ perspectives.

Indonesia was formerly the de facto leader and “heart” of Asean by virtue of its size and central location astride the sea lanes connecting the Indian Ocean – and Middle East oil – with the Pacific.

But under President Joko Widodo’s administration, it has taken a more subdued role in Asean. After denying for years that it is a party to the disputes, Indonesia finally acknowledged that China’s nine-dash line overlaps its claimed 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone extending northeast from the Natuna Islands, and has enhanced its military assets there.

Some Indonesian policymakers also worry about the potential destabilising effect of US-China competition in the region

Although this indicates a growing awareness of the China “threat”, some Indonesian policymakers also worry about the potential destabilising effect of US-China competition in the region. They want Washington to exercise restraint. Clearly, Indonesia is trying to maintain a balance between China and the US.

Malaysia is a claimant to rocks and ocean space in the South China Sea. Its new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, says the presence of warships in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca sends the “wrong signal” and is not healthy for peace and stability in the area. Former Malaysian ambassador Redzuan Kushairi has publicly criticised the stepped-up US navy patrols in the region.

Mahathir said he was concerned because “some countries, which see other countries having warships here, are already asking if they should also be sending theirs”. Presumably he was referring to India and Japan.

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Brunei – another claimant – may be shifting its position. It has been relatively silent on both the disputes and the US-China struggle for influence. Brunei and China have overlapping claims in the South China Sea and Brunei may be using this as leverage to keep badly needed Chinese investment flowing.

Brunei’s petroleum revenues provide nearly all government spending, and government largesse to its citizens underpins its legitimacy. Petroleum reserves are projected to run out in 20 years.

But this is a double-edged sword. Beijing may try to use its strengthening economic and political ties with Brunei to help prevent a consensus within Asean regarding decisions or statements on the South China Sea.

Already Brunei, along with non-claimants Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, has agreed with Beijing that the South China Sea disputes are not an issue for Asean and should be resolved through dialogue and consultation between the parties concerned.

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US relations with non-claimant Thailand have not been close since the military coup there in 2014 and it seems to be leaning towards China. Singapore is not a claimant state but is vitally dependent on commercial freedom of navigation.

It welcomes and facilitates the US military presence by providing temporary basing and refuelling for its warships and aircraft. In doing so, it supports America’s expansive interpretation of “freedom of navigation”, which the US uses to justify its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes targeting China.

But Singapore also seems to be hedging on its policy towards both China and the US. Perhaps its current roles as both Asean interlocutor with China and Asean chair has resulted in it taking a more neutral position.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently said he was cool to the US proposed Quad – a potential security arrangement between Australia, India, Japan and the US that some say is designed to constrain China – because “he did not want to end up with rival blocks forming”.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen criticised both the US and China for challenging the current global order – the US on trade and China in the South China Sea. He specifically called out China for its military build-up there. But he also called on both China and the US to improve their relationship in the interests of the region.

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Vietnam, another South China Sea claimant, has become the most “anti-China” and “pro-US military presence” of the Asean members. It has been appealing to the US to balance China’s influence in the region.

This is understandable, because Vietnam has clashed militarily with China in the past in the South China Sea and came close to doing so again in 2014 when a Chinese oil rig entered waters that it claims.

The Philippines is an example of a country clearly ‘playing both sides’ – successfully so far

The Philippines is an example of a country clearly “playing both sides” – successfully so far. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s abrupt pivot from staunch US military ally to a more neutral stance between the US and China has startled analysts. So far, the Philippines has benefited from its better relationship with China while maintaining a less robust military relationship with the US.

More troubling for the US, Duterte’s political manoeuvring and the outcome so far have shown other countries that it may be possible to survive and even prosper in this difficult situation.

Many Asean members clearly worry that the burgeoning conflict between the US and China will be destabilising to their national security. Duterte’s example may entice others to carve out a more independent policy between the US and China.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China