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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not garner support for Washington’s bid to challenge China in the South China Sea, according to analysts. Photo: AFP

Indonesia, Singapore steer clear of US-China dispute in Pompeo’s South China Sea outreach

  • The US secretary of state called the Asean nations’ foreign ministers after Malaysia’s unusually strong rebuke last week of China’s ‘nine-dash line’
  • Singapore and Jakarta’s accounts of the discussion reflect their strategic priorities, analysts say, as they battle Covid-19 and economic volatility
Following Malaysia’s unusually strong rebuke last week of China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea, the United States has reached out to the Southeast Asian nation’s immediate neighbours to reiterate American support for international law in the disputed waters.
Analysts said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Monday calls to foreign ministers Vivian Balakrishnan of Singapore and Indonesia’s Retno Marsudi were in keeping with Washington’s bid to denounce Beijing’s expansive claims in the disputed waterway, but they pointed out that individual countries’ accounts of the call clearly reflected their different priorities.

The US Department of State on Tuesday published brief statements on Pompeo’s conversations with the ministers. With Retno, he spoke about the Covid-19 crisis and security issues as well as American support for Southeast Asian states upholding their interests in the South China Sea under international law.

Malaysia rebukes Beijing as South China Sea ‘lawfare’ heats up

With Balakrishnan, Pompeo underscored Washington’s opposition to Beijing’s efforts to “use coercion to push its unlawful” maritime assertions in the South China Sea, where Taiwan and four Southeast Asian states – Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei – count themselves as claimants.

The call came just days after Putrajaya rebuked China’s assertions that Malaysia had no right to seek the establishment of its continental shelf in the northern part of the sea. While Malaysia had always taken this stance, the language used in the note verbale to the United Nations was unusually strong.

William Choong, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said the move to reach out to Singapore and Indonesia was to “accumulate some measure of support” within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for the US’ stance on the South China Sea. He referred to a July 13 statement by Pompeo which described Beijing’s claims as “completely unlawful”.

“The grand arc is the US conducting a full-frontal assault on China, not just on economics but values [and] freedom of navigation,” said Choong, adding that it was coherent with the US narrative that China was undermining regional order and that there was a need for like-minded states to uphold international law.

But analysts who parsed the statements on the calls pointed to how Singapore and Indonesia had made clear their priorities as they battled the Covid-19 pandemic and continued to rely on both the US and China for trade and investment.

The statement by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Balakrishnan had received a telephone call from Pompeo, during which the two discussed collaboration in the research and development of vaccines as well as bilateral infrastructure, and that the Singaporean minister had reiterated the city state’s “consistent and long-standing position” on the disputed waters.

“Singapore is not a claimant state and we do not take sides on the competing territorial claims,” it said. “Our key interest is in maintaining peace and stability in one of the world’s busiest waterways.”

In South China Sea, Philippines is stuck between a pebble and a hard place

This, according to Choong, was a “classic Singapore position”, adding that the island nation had always been known for taking measured approaches – even though the statement did add that Balakrishnan also welcomed Washington’s “sustained, constructive and stabilising” regional presence

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, also signalled its priorities when foreign minister Retno posted on Twitter about her call with Pompeo, saying that she had raised two issues – vaccine production as well as the strengthening of trade and investment.

Indonesia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea, but its Natuna islands have been a flashpoint with China for the past few years. While they fall outside Beijing’s “nine-dash line”, the Natunas’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone overlaps with the Chinese claim by about 50,000 square metres.

US aircraft carriers USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz and their carrier strike groups during a drill in the South China Sea last month. Photo: EPA

Indonesia, which has more than 115,000 Covid-19 infections, is battling a growing number of cases and deaths each day. On Wednesday, Indonesia’s statistics agency said the economy contracted in the second quarter for the first time in more than two decades, slumping 5.3 per cent year on year.

Leaving the South China Sea dispute out of Retno’s post was in line with Indonesia’s “balanced” approach when dealing with the US-China rivalry, suggested Choong from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He added that Indonesia counted on China for the bulk of its investments, including through the Belt and Road Initiative, and that Jakarta “really valued” the monetary injection from the mainland.

“It is not surprising in my view because if Indonesia were to say that [it] stands by Pompeo’s statement then that will invite some kind of pushback from the Chinese,” Choong said.

Must Australia choose between China and US?

Aristyo Rizma Darmawan, an international law expert at the University of Indonesia, said Indonesia had often been regarded as the “honest broker” in the territorial disputes, and, like Singapore, would not choose sides when it came to the US-China rivalry as a feature of its foreign policy.

Hikmahanto Juwana, a professor of international law at the University of Indonesia, said Pompeo had failed to get support from Singapore and Indonesia to go against China as both the Asean nations had chosen to remain “neutral”.

He added that the US would need greater support from Southeast Asian nations if it wanted to send a message that China should not dominate the South China Sea.

Choong also weighed in on Pompeo’s strategy, saying that challenging China on values and democracy was “not going to take off” in Southeast Asia.

“We are not going to see the same kind of pushback that the US expects to see in Asean,” he said. “This whole confronting China and kicking down the front door, I don’t think that’s an Asean way.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: u.s. seeks support for its sea stance