US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) shakes hands with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on July 9, 2022. Photo: AFP
Mark J. Valencia
Mark J. Valencia

US must come clean on its desire to contain China in the Indo-Pacific

  • The US’ declared goal is a free and open Indo-Pacific, but its defence arrangements and displays of force in the region tell another story
  • Not only is Washington undermining the very principles it claims to uphold, it is clearly targeting China
On September 6, the US deputy chief of mission to Japan accused China of threatening “the safety of our waterways”, adding that, “no nation should be able to dominate Indo-Pacific waters through coercion and outright intimidation”.

He apparently did not realise the hubris of the use of “our waterways” or the irony that these accusations could equally apply to the US.

This speech was part of a US attempt to win the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians and demonise China. It implicitly stresses the US vision for the region – and criticises China for not complying. However, it is replete with hypocrisy.

The United States envisions a “free and open Indo-Pacific” in which all countries adhere to its interpretation of international law. To uphold this vision, it proclaims that it will “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows”, while opposing the threat or use of force to settle disputes.
It also claims that it supports Asean “centrality” in regional security affairs and that its defence initiatives like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and Aukus alliance are not aimed at China. These statements are repeated by US analysts and government officials and reported without analysis by the Western media. However, they deserve deeper examination.
US Deputy Chief of Mission Raymond Greene (centre) with Japanese Vice-Minister of Defence Kimi Onoda (left) and Philippine Chargé d’Affaires Robespierre Bolivar (right) in Tokyo on Tuesday. Photo: AP
The US construct of a free and open Indo-Pacific and the mantra of protecting freedom of navigation assume that China is a threat to these principles. But China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific and is unlikely to do so in peacetime.

Instead, the US cleverly conflates freedom of commercial navigation with the “freedom” for its warships and warplanes to spy on and threaten China from waters under its jurisdiction. When China objects in word and deed, the US claims China is violating freedom of navigation.

The US undertakes freedom of navigation operations to challenge other countries’ maritime claims that it says contravene the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The US is not party to the convention, so instead of the UNCLOS dispute settlement mechanism, it uses the threat of military force to back its position.
Many countries do not agree with these unilateral US legal interpretations and actions and fear they will destabilise the region.
In July 2020, then US defence secretary Mike Pompeo proclaimed that the US opposes the idea that “might makes right”. This pronouncement came on the heels of the US deployment of two aircraft carrier strike groups – two of its most iconic symbols of power – to the South China Sea.
Aircraft fly in formation over the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force, one of two US aircraft carrier groups deployed to the South China Sea on July 6, 2020. Photo: US Navy/EPA-EFE
Also hypocritical is the US claim to be in support of adherence to international law. The US is the sole G7 country not to have ratified the very convention – UNCLOS – it claims to be the legal standard.

Moreover, the US is hardly a paragon of virtue in abiding by international law. In 1986 the International Court of Justice determined that the US had violated international law by supporting a rebellion against the Nicaraguan government. Washington rejected this legally binding decision.

Regarding Asean centrality, US President Joe Biden has told the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that the US is committed to it. Yet US-driven multilateral arrangements – the Quad and Aukus – tell another story.

The Quad is a security forum of Australia, India, Japan and the US, whose leaders have promised to “champion adherence to international law” in order to “meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”.

They allude to what they consider China’s illegitimate claims in the South China Sea and the China “threat” to freedom of navigation there. In May, the group launched the Indo-Pacific Partnership on Maritime Domain Awareness, which could well be a Trojan horse to gather military intelligence on China.


Talking Post: Kevin Rudd unpacks the risk of war between China and the US with Yonden Lhatoo

Talking Post: Kevin Rudd unpacks the risk of war between China and the US with Yonden Lhatoo

Aukus is an agreement allowing the US and the United Kingdom to supply nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia and collaborate on undersea drone technology, thereby maintaining the “balance of power” in the South China Sea and locking Australia into the US military strategy to contain China.

This agreement undermines, rather than supports, Asean centrality in regional security affairs. Indeed, Southeast Asian countries were not pleased at being left out of the loop and fear that Aukus will spark an arms race.

When parsed, the US public relations blitz is deceitful and hypocritical. The US should stop playing diplomatic charades and call its policy and actions what they are: an attempt to encircle, contain and constrain China.

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