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Uncertainties in ASEAN-China-U.S. Relations on the South China Sea

2017-04-08 11:06:24       source:NISCSS

By Hong Nong

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte was urged by senior advisors from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during its U.S.-ASEAN Relations Conference held in early March in Manila, to assert the arbitral tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea (SCS). This seems to contradict the positive trend of recent developments in the SCS and raise a long-standing question on whether the U.S. is playing a role of balancing regional powers or jeopardizing the existing ASEAN-China frameworkin managing the SCS.


ASEAN’s expectation of U.S. engagement in the SCS evolves parallelto its relationship with China and the development of the SCSsince 1990s. Though ASEAN has not defined China as a potential threat, it recommendedin 1992 that the U.S. maintain its forces in the region since Chinese claims and advances in the SCS had implied that Southeast Asia was not immune to the consequences of the strategic choices of China and the U.S.. Some Southeast Asian states consider continued U.S. military balancing against China a necessity, as Southeast Asian military capabilities are no match for those of China, and a unified ASEAN defence identity is absent. By the late 1990s, most Southeast Asian states had established some form of military cooperation with the U.S., ranging from defence dialogues to alliance agreements requiring mutual defence against aggression. Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines constitute the core U.S.allies or partners in Southeast Asia. Cooperation agreements involve large-scale exercises, frequent visits of U.S. troops and, in Singapore’s case, the permanent stationing of a small U.S. logistics unit. The U.S. military cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are more modest. This principally involves limited transit, refuelling and visiting rights, and joint training. Malaysian and Indonesian support for continued U.S. military presence is particularly noteworthy since, during the Cold War, these countries tended to consider U.S. regional engagement a potentially destabilizing factor.


Of the new memberstates of ASEAN-Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia-only Vietnam has even considered establishing a nascent military relationship with the U.S.. The three other states, constituting the periphery of ASEAN in terms of military, economic, and diplomatic capabilities and geographic location, are closer to China, and remain suspicious of any form of U.S. interference in Southeast Asia. The presence of states amenable to understanding and promoting Chinese concerns in the SCS arguably reduces China’s fears that its interests are ignored in multilateral security settings. ASEAN’s inclusion of Laos, Myanmarand Cambodia implies that Sino-U.S. strategic competition into the region becomes inevitable. This development indicates Southeast Asian recognition that the region is not able to opt out of such competition. The states differ on the appropriate position of Southeast Asia within this framework;however, they agree on the prevalence of strategic competition between the great powers and do not expect this to preclude a Sino-Southeast Asian rapprochement.


China’s concern over increasing U.S. engagement in the SCS started in early June 2009, when a Chinese submarine was found to be shadowing a U.S. Navy ship — possibly undetected by sonar equipment being towed behind the American destroyer. The SCS, where the incident occurred and where the U.S. Navy operates amid a complex patchwork of competing territorial claims, is also a familiar backdrop for such incidents. According to a Malaysian military media outlet, the frequent U.S. military exercises in Southeast Asia serve to acquaint its navy vessels with the geography and war environment in the SCS, the objective obviously pointing to China. Chinese analysts hold that the consistent presence of U.S. warships in the SCS indicates that the U.S. position is driftingaway from neutrality on the SCS disputes.While not every incident gets reported, evidence suggests thatthey are happening more frequently, as Beijing flexes its improved naval capabilities and asserts its objections to U.S.naval activities in disputed waters. The Chinese, however, believe that U.S. military exercises in Southeast Asia aim at blocking passage for Chinese submarines. Some Chinese analysts also suspect U.S. influence in the SCS Arbitration Case.


The temperature in the SCS was lowered due to regional effortsafter July 2016,when the arbitral proceeding came to an end.One of these effortswas the pragmatic approach adopted by Duterte to move on to bilateral dialogue with China without explicitly urging the enforcement of the award.The Philippines’ ships have been allowed access to Scarborough Shoal in the SCS.The coast guards of the Philippines and China lined up joint drills,including search and rescue, oil pollution management, boarding, and law enforcement — particularly on combating drug trafficking and other transnational crimes — to be conducted this year, implementing an agreement that President Duterte signed during his state visit to China in October 2016. General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Nguyen PhuTrong’s visit to China in early 2017 provided an opportunity for China and Vietnam to promote mediationin their SCS issues.ASEAN and China adopted a set of guidelines to establish telephone hotlines among their foreign ministries to be used in times of crisis. The two sides also agreed to apply the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to the SCS so as to reduce the risk of potentially dangerous incidents at sea. ASEAN and China have committed to accelerate negotiations for finalizing a code of conduct (COC) for the SCS.


While China and ASEAN are cooperating to better manage the dispute, the role of other stakeholders, especially the U.S., should not be ignored. In 2016, the U.S. increased the frequency of its naval patrols within and outside the 12 nautical-mile zones of the Spratly and Paracel Islands under the name of innocent passage and freedom of navigation, without challenging China’s sovereignty claims. Compared with its strong reaction to the 2001 EP-3 incident and the 2009 Impeccable incident, during which its strong nationalism dominated public discourse, China reacted with low-profile official protests, without objecting to the doctrine of freedom of navigation itself. The behavior of the U.S. and China reflects the political willingness of both countries to keep the SCSdispute under control and to enhance maritime cooperation despite these divergent views.


Whether this balance will continue during the Trump administration is not yet clear. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a tougher stance against China’s presence in the SCS. Recently, however, he reportedly pushed President Donald Trump to reaffirm the One China policy after indicating that it should be reconsidered. Secretary of Defense James Mattis also seems eager to walk back the rhetoric a little, suggesting during his inaugural trip to Tokyo that there is “no need for dramatic US military moves in [the] South China Sea.” At the same time, however, Steve Bannon, the appointed senior counselor to the president, said “there is no doubt” that the U.S. is “going to war in the South China Sea in 5 to 10 years.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicerclaimed that “we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.” Notably, the words “freedom of navigation”—the linchpin of Obama-era declamations of U.S. interests in the SCS—did not appear at the briefing. Whether this signaled a sharp departure in the U.S. approach to handling China’s territorial claims at sea remains to be seen. All these comments from key members of Trump’s foreign policy team suggest an uncertain U.S. policy in the SCS.

China and regional states are not concerned aboutthe U.S. freedom of navigation operations. Despite the divergence of legal interpretation, China and the U.S. are working hard to balance their respective national interests. It is a big concern, however, whether the uncertainty of Trump’s policy in the SCS and the increasing presence of its naval power in this region would expand the misperception and increase the trust deficit and eventually stirs again the peace of the SCS, which now moves positively in a way that works pragmatically in this region. Whether the U.S. is playing the role of balancing regional powers as desired by ASEAN, or jeopardizing the existing ASEAN-China frameworkin managing the SCS remains to be seen.


In the Xi-Trump meeting on April 6 in Florida, China offers new U.S.-China dialogue platform on security and diplomacy, economy and trade, cyber and law enforcement, and people exchange. The SCS does not appear to be a top-shelf issue. It seems that the SCS issue may give way to other more critical issues, e.g. North Korea, trade relations in the coming U.S.-China relations.