On March 23, the US Navy destroyer Mustin made a non-innocent passage within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificially built up and occupied Mischief Reef. China saw this as yet another “serious political and military provocation”. This latest Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) came amid a downturn in US-China relations – particularly over the South China Sea.
Soon after that, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Australian media that, “Most Asean members support and welcome the US stance.” Since Singapore is this year’s Asean Chair, Lee’s statement may hold special weight. But we should note that the statement dealt with the United States’ more general role as a “Pacific power” – not specifically its behaviour in the South China Sea. Lee was referring to US Defence Secretary James Mattis’ affirmation at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue that Southeast Asia was a priority area and that the US was committed “to the region’s security and prosperity”.
Lee also said, “From the region’s perspective, the most critical issue is the political and strategic resolve of the US to project a reliable and constructive presence as a Pacific power.” He was conveying some uncertainty about that commitment and resolve.
The key phrases in his assessment are “reliable and constructive presence” and “commitment to the region’s security and prosperity”. As Lee said at the March 18 Asean-Australia Special Summit, “The South China Sea is an issue for specific Asean countries which are claimant states … It’s an issue for the rest of the Asean countries too because this is a security and stability question in Southeast Asia which will affect all.”
Of course all Asean members would welcome US commitment to the region’s security and prosperity. But a more specific question is, do most Asean members view the US military presence and activities in the South China Sea as “reliable and constructive” and thus contributing to “the region’s security and prosperity”?
It is difficult to assess the answer to this critical question from the perspective of Asean members since Asean rarely offers negative official statements identifying a subject country.
It is clear that Singapore warmly welcomes the US military presence – even facilitating it by providing temporary bases and refuelling for its warships and aircraft. This is understandable because Singapore’s economy depends heavily on commercial freedom and safety of navigation which it hopes the US military presence will ensure.
Vietnam also clearly welcomes and supports the US military presence and has been appealing to Washington to balance China’s influence in the region. Vietnam has clashed militarily with China in the past in the disputed sea and came close again in 2014 when a Chinese oil rig entered waters that it claims.
But Vietnam is opportunistic: Its warming to the US will last just as long as it is needed. There is no alignment of fundamental interests – other than to contain China – and really very little coincidence of values between its Communist authoritarian system and that of the liberal democratic US. Moreover Vietnam is steadfastly non-aligned. Indeed, its longstanding policy is the “three nos” – no participation in military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory, and no reliance on one country to fight against another. This is not likely to change.
Some other Asean members are apparently less enthusiastic about the US military’s involvement in the South China Sea (SCS).
Some Indonesian policymakers remain suspicious of US motives and worry about the potential destabilising effect of US-China competition. They want Washington to exercise restraint. Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu has said that “if regional countries can manage the SCS on their own, there is no need to involve others”.
The position of the Philippines is quite surprising. President Rodrigo Duterte clearly does not have confidence that the long-time ally US would back it up in a kinetic conflict with China – which is apparently one reason he pivoted Philippine foreign policy towards China. When the US Navy’s Hopper undertook a freedom of navigation operation near disputed Scarborough Shoal, it got no support from the Philippines. Philippine Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said, “The problem of America today is no longer the problem of the Philippines.”
Although a rival claimant, Brunei seems to be reaching an accommodation with China. US relations with non-claimant Thailand have not been close since the military coup there in 2014 and it seems to be leaning towards China. Non-claimants Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar do not have a direct interest in the SCS and are either neutral or in China’s camp on this issue.
Nevertheless, US officials continue to speak and act as if the US military presence and activities are warmly welcomed in the region without reservation. But Southeast Asian support may be much shallower and more ephemeral than they think. This clearly manifested last August when Asean leaders and their dialogue partners, including China and the US, held a series of key security meetings in the Philippines. Regarding the SCS issues, the joint communiqué of the Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting strongly favoured China’s preferences over those of its opponents within Asean and those of the US.
Both China and the US are pressuring Asean members to support their interests in the SCS and this has led to disunity within Asean. A particular concern is that their intensifying competition could spill over into these countries’ domestic politics, interfering in their internal affairs in an echo of the Cold War rivalry.
Mark J Valencia is a maritime policy analyst and consultant focused on Asia. He was a senior fellow with the East-West Center In Washington for 26 years and is currently an adjunct senior scholar with the National Institute for SCS Studies, Haikou, China.