Beijing vows to keep military presence in South China Sea as US pledges US$300 million for security
Foreign Minister Wang Yi makes the remarks at Asean summit after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces Indo-Pacific commitment
Beijing on Saturday vowed to maintain its military presence in the South China Sea, insisting the US is “the biggest force for militarisation in this region” after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged US$300 million to boost security in the Indo-Pacific.
The investment is part of US efforts to counter China’s influence in the region, but Beijing and regional analysts said the amount was too small to have any real impact.
Pompeo made the announcement in Singapore at the annual meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers, which finishes on Saturday.
It comes amid growing economic and geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States. Beijing on Friday said it would impose 5 to 25 per cent tariffs on US$60 billion worth of American goods, in response to a US threat to slap duties on US$200 billion of Chinese products.
Also in Singapore, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the tariffs were “a necessary and a justified response … in the interests of the Chinese people”.
Pompeo said the US tariffs and its tussle with China were part of Washington’s efforts to correct “an unfair trade regime where American workers in American companies are not treated reciprocally or fairly by the Chinese”.
Washington has also been stepping up pressure on Beijing on the security front. Speaking on the sidelines of the Asean meeting, Pompeo said the additional US$300 million in security assistance would be used to advance US priorities, especially strengthening maritime security, developing humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping capabilities.
The US secretary of state announced an initial US$113 million budget for Indo-Pacific development before he left for his five-day Asia trip. He described that as a “down payment” on Washington’s commitment to the region, stressing that the Indo-Pacific was an important engine for economic growth.
Pompeo also said he had discussed Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea and the importance of a rules-based order in the region with the Asean nations.
The Chinese foreign minister hit back, saying the US had been stirring up trouble in the region.
“The intervention from individual countries from outside the region – who again are pointing fingers and trying to stir up trouble – this is deeply regrettable,” Wang, who is also a state councillor, said.
He added that the more pressure China was put under from forces “outside the region” such as the United States, the more it would have to step up efforts to expand its defences.
“The US has frequently deployed large-scale strategic weapons in the South China Sea and posed security threats to the region, it is the largest force of militarisation,” he said.
Wang also said the US funding commitment was too low, but said China welcomed the move because it shared the same goal of providing regional security.
“The US is the world superpower, with a GDP of US$16 trillion,” he said. “So when I first heard about the US$113 million, I thought I must have misheard. It should be at least 10 times that … for a superpower, US$1.3 billion or even US$13 billion wouldn’t be too much.”
Analysts also said the amount was insufficient for the US to demonstrate its commitment to the region, as China’s influence continues to grow.
“I think realistically this would mean more joint training and exercises, upgraded equipment (such as radar and communication kits), some coastal patrol boats and so on – nothing too extraordinary. The amount is minuscule at best for a region as diverse as Southeast Asia,” said Oh Ei Sun, an international affairs analyst and former Malaysian government official.
“The Indo-Pacific strategy, if it were to have any real teeth in the region, would require huge military expenditure especially on the American part, but the US shows no sign at all that it is willing to shoulder such costs, at least not during the [Donald] Trump administration, which ironically introduced the strategy,” he said.
Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based geopolitical analyst, said healthy rivalry between China and the United States was welcomed in the region.
“We welcome healthy competition for influence and capacity building initiatives by both superpowers short of conflict and unhealthy zero-sum rivalry between them,” Heydarian said.
But he added that whether the US funding would be effective would depend largely “on whether this is an augmentation of existing initiatives, including the Maritime Security Initiative, or simply a repackaging of them under new label”.
“Any funding should have both a developmental and maritime security dimension to make a dent.”