Changing approach of US towards South China Sea: ASEAN’s opportunity

The changing approach towards the Chinese claims in the South China Sea (SCS) is propelled by the continued Chinese belligerence and bullying tactics towards its neighbours aimed at establishing total control in the region. US has announced that the policy of appeasement towards China has come to an end. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on the 13th July stated that the Chinese government has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region. Besides rejecting the Chinese claims to offshore resources across most of the SCS and terming them as “completely unlawful”, significantly US announced for the first time that Washington is aligning its position on the Chinese claims in the SCS with the PCA Ruling of 2016.

Following this, Pompeo in a tweet exhorted the free nations to contain China otherwise it would usurp more territories. He averred that the South China Sea is not China’s maritime empire. On the 23rd July, Pompeo pointing out the duplicitous nature of the Chinese leadership, asked others not to believe what the Chinese leaders say but to take into account how they behave. This has led to the US change its policy from “trust but verify” to “distrust and verify”. He also said that the challenge of China demanded exertion from democracies-those in Europe, in Africa, in South America, and especially those in the Indo-Pacific region. He mentioned that the combined economic, diplomatic, and military power of the UN, NATO, the G7, the G20, can meet this challenge if directed properly. He called for a new alliance of like-minded nations. Subsequently, the US deployed its aircraft-carriers in the Indo-Pacific region to contain China’s aggressive posture.

Significantly, at the 30th Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, the Secretaries and Ministers reaffirmed that the Indo-Pacific is the focus of the Alliance and that the United States and Australia are working side-by-side, including with ASEAN, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Five Eyes partners, to strengthen the networked structure of alliances and partnerships to maintain a region that is secure, prosperous, inclusive, and rules-based. They also rejected the nine-dashed line of China and re-affirmed the role of Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific region. This reflects the growing opposition to Dragon’s illegal acts.

In essence, the US changed approach has the four important aspects. First, while the US has not stated anything on the territorial disputes, it has certainly taken a position on the maritime disputes on water and seabed rights, which is important for the littoral countries. Second, the US is now firmly endorsing the PCA Ruling of 2016. This nullifies the Chinese nine-dashed-line. Third, features like Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, and Reed Bank, which are naturally underwater are not subject to any claim of sovereignty. The US would include other such features like Lucania, James Shoal off Malaysia and Vanguard Bank off Vietnam Coast. Fourth, this time the US clearly termed the Chinese activities as “illegal”. Earlier US was using terms like “destabilising” or “aggressive”.

While the change in US policy would have an impact in the long term to impose a cost on China and rallying support to its partners and allies, in immediate terms three dimensions would be important. First, in future, a more forceful diplomatic response from the US to condemn Chinese illegal actions of encroachment into the other nation’s EEZ or harassment of oil drilling process or fishermen can be expected. Second, the US would now be placing the illegal acts before international forums strongly and in forceful terms. It would not be restricted only to East Asia Summit but would also raise at the UN, G 7, G 20 etc.

Third, the US may also take more steps to impose an economic cost on China. By declaring several activities illegal, US has equipped itself with justification for the imposition of sanctions on the Chinese companies and entities that conduct them. The US objective is to change the behaviour of China and for this it needs the support of other nations. In the short-term, there may be an escalation of tension given the fact that China, which has to satisfy its domestic population that is on a diet of irredentism and ultra-nationalism, would resort to wolf diplomacy. This is seen in the context of the Indo-Tibetan border de-escalation process. The Chinese diplomats are indulging in chest-thumping to indicate that China is only protecting its sovereignty and India has made aggressive moves.

While the above situation opens an opportunity for ASEAN and its chair Vietnam to make well-calibrated moves to protect their interests, it also places a huge responsibility on them. First, the ASEAN needs to bring before the international bodies like the UN, EU etc. the Chinese illegal activities and claims more forcefully and align their strategic moves. This provides an opportunity to pressurise China with the help of the world body for early conclusion of legally binding Code of Conduct and implementation of PCA Ruling. The process of UN-ASEAN meetings has been established by Vietnam as the ASEAN Chair. This should now be given permanency. Similar mechanisms should be established with other international groups.

Second, the International Community would be now be more willing to help ASEAN members to build their military capabilities. This is an opportunity to build military capabilities by acquiring modern weapons and technology by littoral countries. Vietnam could intensify the process to acquire defence technology and missiles like BrahMos from India as both the countries are strategic partners. Alongside ASEAN members may be encouraged to participate in naval exercises with the US, Japan, Australia and India. The operationalisation of Four Plus that may include ASEAN and South Korea could contain Dragon and to strengthen the efforts for having a free and open Indo-Pacific region based on international law and norms.

Third, the ASEAN Chair should not allow any of its members to be coerced by China. This would be a daunting task as China is using all tricks to woo influential persons in economically weaker countries. However, with members realising the cost of joining the Chinese camp and falling into its debt-trap, it is hoped that a similar situation that was created by China in 2012 would not happen again.

Fourth, the attempt by China to project that nine-dashed line has historic claims must be countered effectively. These are only arbitrary lines which China is publicising in the hope that someday they may be accepted internationally. ASEAN should come to an agreement that they all should show in their official maps the SCS as a common area. If they can jointly agree for a suitable common nomenclature for SCS like South East Asian Sea, that would much better.

Fifth, ASEAN can also impose an economic cost on China by reducing their dependence on the Chinese goods. There are several companies which are moving out from China and Hong Kong and the Chinese supply line is getting disrupted. This provides an excellent opportunity to Vietnam which has done economically better than China this year. Such companies should be provided with the necessary infrastructure to shift from China and assurance to modify any regulation if required. Vietnam can emerge as the manufacturing hub in SE Asia. In economic activities, India and Vietnam can work as partners for strengthening the supply line. While Vietnam’s exports to India include mobile phones and components, machinery, computers & electronic hardware, natural rubber, chemicals and coffee; India’s exports to Vietnam include meat and fishery products, corn, steel, pharmaceuticals, cotton and machinery. Vietnam is also exporting fine quality rice to other countries. As these items have great demand in Africa, West Asia and Europe, an improved connectivity can significantly enhance Vietnam’s trade with them.

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