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‘Historic presence’ doesn’t justify US conduct in SCS

2022-09-05 16:46:24       source:NISCSS

August 21, 2022

Gregory Poling of Washington think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has tried to justify current US policy and conduct in the South China Sea by detailing its historic “investment” there.


Although he has publicly admitted his bias by stating that it is his job “to advance the interests of the United States,” it is not in the US interest to produce biased analysis of critical issues regarding US policy in the region. For that reason, his article in Foreign Policy cries out for a riposte.


Poling’s polemic begins by dismissing Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe’s address to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June as “tin-eared” and in contrast praising that of US Defense Minister Greg Austin.


But Austin’s meme of “a US focus on alliances and international rules as a source of stability” was also tin-eared for some Southeast Asian countries that want both the US and China to dial back their military competition and their attempts to make such countries choose between the two superpowers.


Then, in an epitome of disingenuousness, the article asserts that China is threatening “freedom of navigation.” It says that “Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, especially to historic rights throughout the nine-dash line, threaten the centuries-old US commitment to freedom of the seas.”


First of all, if the author knows exactly what China claims, he should share it and the evidence for it with the rest of us who are still unclear.


Apparently he thinks this is a claim to sovereignty over the waters and territory within the nine-dash line. Yet many others think it is at most a claim to sovereignty only over the territory and a share of the resources within that line. While the latter was not recognized by an international tribunal, such a claim does not threaten freedom of navigation.


Indeed, whatever China claims, it has not threatened freedom of commercial navigation there and is unlikely to do so in peacetime. To the contrary, it worries that the US, in a time of hostilities, might cut its commercial lifelines, and it is preparing  to defend them.


The US and apparently the author conflate freedom of commercial navigation with the “freedom” of its military to spy on and threaten China’s defenses.


While China does not object to ordinary military transit of the South China Sea, it does object in word and deed to certain military activities that it thinks violate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea’s (UNCLOS’) requirement to pay due regard to its rights and duties in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).


The article goes on to say that the US commitment to freedom of the seas “mitigates naval tensions.” To the contrary, it exacerbates naval tension when the US uses warships and warplanes to enforce its interpretation of “freedom of navigation” for its military to spy on and threaten China’s defenses.


Southeast Asian concerns


Indeed, this statement is “tin-eared” for Southeast Asian countries. Given that claims by all littoral members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations except Singapore and Brunei have been targets of US Navy freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), it is safe to say that they do not approve of this gunboat diplomacy – at least against themselves.  They also fear that it will be destabilizing.


Even US stalwart Singapore has reservations. Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen has said, “Some of the [South China Sea] incidents are from assertion of principles, but we recognize that the price of any physical incident is one that is too high and unnecessary to either assert or prove your position.” This criticism seemed directed at the US use of warships to assert its legal position.


Some Indonesian policymakers have long been suspicious of US intent and worry about the potential destabilizing effect of increasing US-China military competition and confrontation. Then-defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu suggested that “if regional countries can manage the SCS on their own, there is no need to involve others.”


Luhut Pandjaitan, then coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, once declared in a veiled criticism of both US and China that “we don’t like any power projection.”


Former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte once said that “the threat of confrontation and trouble in the waterway came from outside the region.” Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad  has argued that “big warships [in the South China Sea] may cause incidents, and that will lead to tension.”  


Indeed, then-Malaysian foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in 2020: “While international law guarantees the freedom of navigation, the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations which may affect peace, security and stability in the region.”


In the context of the question of “freedom of navigation,” Poling’s article asserts that ”for every American involved in maritime affairs whether naval, commercial or scientific, UNCLOS is effectively the law of the land.”


This sweeping statement conveniently ignores the fact that the US and apparently the author have their own interpretations of key provisions of UNCLOS, especially those pertaining to freedom of navigation, that differ from those of other countries such as China.


These include “other internationally lawful uses of the sea,” “marine scientific research,” “abuse of rights,” ”due regard,” and “peaceful use/purpose.” Worse, the US then backs up its interpretations with gunboat diplomacy by challenging others’ claims with threat of use of force, aka FONOPs. Poling also ignores the fact that the US is not a party to UNCLOS and thus has no legitimacy or credibility unilaterally interpreting such provisions in its favor.


According to the article, “the US alliances network along with American territories in the region made the United States a resident power and helped maintain stability in Asia.” This would be news to many Southeast Asians. Just what “territories in the region” does he mean?


The United States’ continued neocolonial occupation  of conquered remote Pacific islands hardly qualifies it as a “resident power” in East and Southeast Asia. Moreover its alliances with Thailand and the Philippines are rapidly fading in strength and relevance.


But it is the assertion that the US has helped maintain stability in Asia that really takes the cake. US attempts to maintain its hegemony were a major factor in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Moreover, its support for regime change and for ruthless dictators in Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines also resulted in instability when their peoples rebelled.


This polemic, with its facile and false assumptions, has no place in a prestigious journal like Foreign Policy.

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