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The US Navy’s Nimitz Carrier Strike Force conducts operations in the South China Sea on July 6. Photo: EPA

The US is taking on Beijing over the South China Sea, but Asean remains cautious

  • With US-China ties fraying and a need for trade with China amid the Covid-19 pandemic, countries in the region cannot risk siding with Washington, analysts say
  • Negotiations over a code of conduct in the disputed waterway could also stall following the US’ assertions that Beijing’s claims are ‘completely unlawful’
Most Asean countries will remain cautious and not publicly take the United States’ side after Washington rejected Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, according to analysts.

Observers said countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were also worried about the ramifications of a possible clash between the world’s two largest economies after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said China’s assertions of sovereignty in the disputed waterway were “completely unlawful”.

Le Hong Hiep, research fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said Pompeo’s statement would allow Asean countries to enjoy a stronger legal and political position vis-à-vis Beijing in the South China Sea.

Asean can no longer afford to be subtle over the South China Sea

“However, they may have to do so in such a manner that they won’t be seen as siding with Washington against Beijing,” Le said.

The strategic rivalry between the US and China has in recent weeks seen ties between the two deteriorate over issues ranging from the tariff war, trade imbalances, the origins of Covid-19 and Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Bilateral relations have now frayed to the point that some analysts have pointed out that Beijing and Washington had not met dialogue partners in Asia together to discuss Covid-19 coordination, although they had individually done so through other institutions and mechanisms such as Asean+3 and the Quad, the Indo-Pacific grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, research fellow with the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said many Asean countries needed to maintain their ties with China to ensure their economic recovery amid the pandemic.


“To the extent that trade with and investments from China are important in reviving their economies battered by months of lockdown, prudence may get the better of them,” he said.

Benjamin Ho, assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said most Asean countries would interpret Pompeo’s comments within the context of the upcoming US elections, during which relations with China would emerge as a major foreign policy and even national security issue.

South China Sea disputes, Rohingya refugees on agenda at Asean meeting

They were therefore unlikely to take active measures to side with Washington, Ho said, adding that these countries would wait and see until the next US administration was confirmed.

Pitlo noted that Pompeo’s comments were firmly in support of The Hague’s landmark international tribunal in 2016, which invalidated China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.

Philippine foreign affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr on Sunday said that ruling “conclusively settled the issue of historic rights and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea” based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and was “non-negotiable”.


On Tuesday, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said the maritime dispute “does not sum up our relations with China” and that the administration would not enforce the 2016 ruling.

“We will proceed with our friendly relations. The matters that can move forward will move forward. The issues that cannot be resolved will be set aside,” Roque said.


Locsin, who spoke with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Tuesday, tweeted that the world’s biggest economies still needed each other so they could recover from the effects of the pandemic. Manila and Beijing would continue with “peaceful negotiations” to resolve differences in the South China Sea, he said.

Ho cautioned that in the long term, Manila had more to lose than Washington if its relations with Beijing broke down. “Economically, the Philippines would be in big trouble, and that’d be less breathing space for Manila,” he said.

Part of the disputed Paracel island chain, claimed by both China and Vietnam, in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

Pointing out that Pompeo’s assertions reflected the current mood of Sino-American ties, Ho said Washington in the past had generally used more neutral terms when it came to the South China Sea, preferring to see the region resolve its territorial differences peacefully.


“What has changed now is that the US is more explicit with its criticism of China whereas in the past it was more of a veiled rebuke or behind-the-scenes criticism towards Beijing,” Ho said.

Le from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute noted that even though Washington had rejected Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea on multiple occasions, this was the most direct and powerful attack on China so far, and it was about the US’ wish to protect law and order in the waterway as much as it was about the intensified strategic rivalry.

Asean leaders stick to 1982 UN treaty in South China Sea dispute

“Pompeo’s statements were aimed at undermining China’s standing and the legitimacy of its actions against other claimant states in the South China Sea,” he said. “They may also pave the way for the US to take stronger actions to challenge China’s assertive moves in the sea in the future.”


Asian Vision Institute President Vannarith Chheang said in light of the US-China tensions, “hard power gains” were being prioritised over diplomacy and dialogue, adding that Asean had a limited role in managing the rivalry.

On whether Pompeo’s assertions would affect negotiations between Asean and China over a code of conduct in the South China Sea, some analysts said they were unlikely to move forward any time soon given the ongoing pandemic. Chheang said discussions might even have to be postponed beyond 2021.

The code of conduct is a legally binding document that will manage how countries act within the South China Sea amid overlapping territorial claims. It is based on the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by China and the 10 Asean member states.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says Beijing’s assertions of sovereignty in the South China Sea are “completely unlawful”. Photo: AFP

However, Pitlo from the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation argued that Southeast Asian countries should accelerate negotiations for an “effective and binding” code of conduct with China.

“Asean should not sit idle and be a bystander as rivalry between two geopolitical rivals heats up in their neighbourhood,” he said. “The stakes are too high for them to lose agency in this unfolding drama.”

Le from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute warned that the code of conduct negotiations might face setbacks in light of the latest declaration from Washington, as claimant states might be emboldened to pursue oil and gas activities in their respective exclusive economic zones.

“China, in turn, may coerce them to cease such activities, which will cause tensions in the South China Sea to rise and hinder the negotiations,” he said.

Beijing has maintained a presence in the disputed waters through a combination of Chinese government survey vessels, coastguard ships and fishing militia boats.

The Malaysian Auditor-General’s report released on Tuesday said Chinese coast guard and navy ships were recorded encroaching into Malaysian waters in the South China Sea 89 times between 2016 and 2019.

The Chinese vessels were found in Sarawak waters and off the west coast of Sabah, two Malaysian states in Borneo. The report said out of the 89 incursion cases, 72 involved the China Coast Guard and 17 from the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

“Audit review found the reason for the presence of the CCG and PLAN was to demonstrate China’s presence with regards to its claims on the South China Sea especially in the Beting Patinggi Ali area,” said the report.

Beting Patinggi Ali, known internationally as the Luconia Shoals, is located just 84 nautical miles from the coast of Sarawak, but China has staked a claim to the land feature.

Chinese nationalist tabloid Global Times on Tuesday accused Washington of being the “largest manipulator” and “biggest threat to stability” in the South China Sea.

Peng Nian, an associate fellow at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said Washington “often pretended to be fair” in stopping a fight in the disputed waters, but in reality was actually “helping others against China”.

The US had also long pressured Beijing to respect the tribunal’s 2016 decision on the South China Sea.

“Therefore, Pompeo’s comments are merely attempts to further publicise such practices and to increase diplomatic pressure on China,” Peng said.

Additional reporting by Associated Press