30 Oct 2018

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It is fair to say that security tensions in the South China Sea have never been greater.

The hawkish attitude that the Trump administration has taken against China – on trade and Taiwan, for instance – has extended to countering Beijing’s interests in these waters demarcated by its famous ‘nine-dash line’.

The most recent and dangerous confrontation among the two superpowers saw a Chinese naval vessel responding strongly to a U.S. Freedom of Navigation operation (FONOP) in early October, with the former closing to within 45 yards of the U.S. vessel’s bow and forcing it to manoeuvre to avoid a collision. The Chinese vessel was ostensibly acting to protect Beijing’s sovereignty over waters near the contested Spratly Islands.

Has U.S. interests changed substantially since the Obama administration, whose policy in the South China Sea was considerably muted juxtaposed against Trump’s more offensive strategy? More importantly, is the U.S. for real in the South China Sea?

Despite the grandiose statements made and more belligerent attitude the current administration has taken vis-à-vis Beijing, it is clear that Washington’s strategic calculus has not fundamentally changed.

When push comes to shove, it is very unlikely that the U.S. will go out of its way to contest Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Taken to its logical conclusion, the U.S. will not enter military conflict over these waters. Three observations support this assertion.

Will America Fight a War for International Law?

First, the United States has painted itself as the supposed international law-abiding party, where it conducts FONOPs to assert the right to innocent passage through the disputed waters. On the other hand, Washington paints Beijing as the expansionist aggressor using its new-found naval power to coerce its weaker Southeast Asian neighbours.

But beneath the rhetoric on both sides, it is important to ask what America’s core interest in the South China Sea is. It would certainly not be to safeguard international law per se. Instead, it is to secure the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s right to sail on the high seas and allow the projection of U.S. naval power near China’s coastline – should the situation between Washington and Beijing escalate to the brink of armed conflict.

If we accept that this is the underlying reason for the U.S. interest in the South China Sea, it seems almost laughable that it contemplates the use of force to secure its freedom of navigation in the event force is needed. That would be placing the horse before the cart.

‘Losing’ the diplomatic and legal battle on the South China Sea – meaning that if Beijing succeeded in expanding its de facto control over these waters and booting the U.S. Navy out – erodes American naval superiority in the Pacific, but it is not an interest significant enough to warrant a use of force that would be highly escalatory and condemned on the international stage.

Simply put, while international law of the sea is something important enough for the U.S. to anger China over (through FONOPs), it is not so critical that it necessitates a pre-emptive use of force.

Will America Fight a War for Southeast Asia?

Second, besides its interest in safeguarding the Law of the Sea, analysts often cite the ‘long-standing friendship’ between the U.S. and its Southeast Asian partners as another factor that could persuade Washington to defend the region against Beijing in the South China Sea.

This can’t be less true.

While there indeed appeared to be a special relationship between the U.S. and Southeast Asian states during the Obama administration’s ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot to Asia’ foreign policy, the relationships brokered by the Trump administration is nowhere as strong. Trump’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ (FOIPS) centres on the Indian sub-continent and the engagement of India, not on a deeper security or economic relationship with Southeast Asia.

Several facts also point to the conclusion that the U.S. of today does not view Southeast Asia as particularly important. It backed out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the early days of the Trump administration, which in effect signalled an economic withdrawal from the region – considering that four of the original 12 signatories (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam) were Southeast Asian states.

President Trump also skipped the East Asia Summit (EAS) held in Manila last year, despite being in the region after attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. In addition, he is not scheduled to even come to the region later this year for the U.S.-ASEAN summit, EAS or APEC, opting to send Vice-President Mike Pence instead. These decisions cast doubt on the U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia, where just showing up at these meetings sends reassurances.

This evidence points to a U.S. administration that doesn’t view Southeast Asia as a key facet of its foreign policy. We can much less expect that Washington will help to defend the region against Chinese aggression.

Will America Bear the Massive Costs of a War over the South China Sea?

Third, and perhaps most importantly, even if the U.S. was willing to fight a war to safeguard the international law of the sea and defend its ASEAN partners, it would face significant domestic backlash over the massive economic and human costs that a full-scale war would precipitate.

President Trump rode a wave of nationalism to the White House in 2016, where he pledged to “Make America Great Again” – a not-so-subtle reference to its aim to reclaim its rightful place in the world instead of ‘being cheated’ by other states that are running a huge trade surplus against it. Besides, Americans are war-fatigued after fighting a series of long-running wars in far-flung Middle Eastern countries.

From this perspective, it is inconceivable that the administration will devote scarce military and economic resources – especially with its widening budget deficit – to fight a war in Southeast Asia simply for the freedom of navigation, or to assist its ASEAN partners, or to counter Beijing. Americans are likely to question U.S. core interests in the region, and whether it is worth the lives of countless American soldiers to safeguard these – seemingly non-essential – interests.

Taken together, there is simply no strong argument why we should be expecting Washington to be ‘for real’ in the South China Sea, when push comes to shove.

ASEAN’s Dilemma – What Can It Do?

This conclusion bodes ill for ASEAN’s South China Sea claimants.

From the point of view of claimant states like the Philippines and Vietnam, it faces an expansionist China who has become increasingly assertive in the region on one hand; and a fickle ally in the U.S. on the other hand – a partner who is not prepared to devote its resources, much less its military might, to their cause. Yet this fickle friend appears to be speaking for the interests of the ASEAN claimants.

ASEAN needs to be careful not to be embroiled into the great power politics that is driving the U.S.-China confrontation in the South China Sea. Swinging one way or other will damage the bloc’s wider regional interests, lest it divides member states into choosing sides – a contravention of the much-vaunted ASEAN centrality and its publicly articulated desire to steer clear of great power competition.

It would be wise for ASEAN to tread carefully, especially given the unpredictable tendencies of the current U.S. President. ASEAN should maintain its neutrality, continue its current plans to establish a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and avoid stoking tensions further – lest it suffers collateral damage in this proxy battle for global supremacy.