Should the US put its military muscle where its mouth is on the South China Sea—and if it does—what are the likely consequences?
On July 13, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the US considers China’s interference with Southeast Asian countries’ fishing and oil exploration and exploitation in their legitimate maritime zones in the South China Sea—and China’s own exploration and exploitation in these zones—to be “unlawful” and “bullying”.
The political core of the statement was the declaration that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources” and that “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” These are bold words and US-China relations and the stability of the South China Sea will depend in large part on if and how the US attempts to back them up.
Some analysts think—or perhaps hope—that this policy clarification regarding the South China Sea will see the US back China’s rival claimants with the threat of force and thus encourage them to stand up to China. They even specifically suggest that the US “conduct patrols to challenge or expel fishing boats or oil and gas exploration vessels operating without permission in other states’ exclusive economic zones [EEZs].”
But if the US acts to back up its recent statement, this “new” policy will increase tensions and risk dangerous incidents for all concerned, whether intended or not.
Nevertheless, analysts and the US government believe that such a threat of force will be welcomed by Southeast Asia. But with the exception of Vietnam, many Southeast Asian states are deeply concerned that US military escalation and China’s response will result in a conflict from which they will suffer.
One recent incident was revealing: on April 18, a Chinese survey ship accompanied by coast guard and maritime militia vessels approached a disputed area where a drill ship—the West Capella—was operating under contract for Malaysia’s national oil company, Petronas. The US sent warships to the vicinity, apparently without invitation or consultation with Malaysia. Malaysia requires prior permission for foreign military activities in its EEZ—a requirement that the US does not recognize and has previously challenged with its “freedom of navigation operations.” As the US warships steamed toward Malaysia’s EEZ, decision makers at Petronas and in Kuala Lumpur could not be sure whether the US was coming to their aid or challenging their maritime claims.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in reference to this incident, “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.”
Many Southeast Asian states are already deeply worried about US projection of power in the region. In October 2018, there was a near collision between a Chinese warship and a US warship undertaking a freedom of navigation operation. Ng Eng Hen, defense minister of Singapore, a US strategic partner, said after the incident that “Some of the 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.”
In response to Pompeo’s new statement, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin called for the big powers “to avoid military posturing.” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said prior to Pompeo’s statement that it is “important for ASEAN to keep sending out messages to great powers involved in the dispute to maintain regional peace and stability in the South China Sea.” Considering previous statements by high-level Indonesian officials, this appears to be a plea to both China and the US to back off and exercise more restraint in their military operations in the region.
Some regional analysts see the new policy as a “double-edged sword” that has “the effect of both deterring but also potentially escalating matters with China,” as Shahriman Lockman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia put it. “The worst-case scenario is for things to escalate, and then the US gets distracted by something in the Middle East, and we get saddled with more Chinese ships in our waters.”
The other side of the coin is that the ‘new’ policy could tempt smaller states “to do things that could provoke Beijing and [the US] would then own,” according to Michael Green, senior vice-president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The bottom line is that China may not be cowed by a show of force, as Beijing seems increasingly unconvinced that America would actually go to war.
This conviction will only continue to strengthen as China’s domestic nationalism and military and economic power grow and America continues to be distracted by domestic issues, its foreign policy in disarray. China’s body politic has become increasingly nationalistic and any potential national loss of face, like a US attempt to force a military stand-down, could instead trigger a military response. According to Gregory B. Poling, director of the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, such an action “might lead China to double down out of a sense of nationalism.”
Rather than being “smart”, the policy clarification creates a dilemma for Washington which it had so far avoided through ambiguity. Now it must either back up its words and risk conflict with China—or lose more credibility regarding its staying power and commitment to friends, allies and the region. Worse, it makes US policy implementation subject to the unilateral provocative actions of others—like Vietnam.
The reality is that Pompeo’s policy pronouncement was an unnecessary last gasp of a dying administration. Its continuity past the US election in November and the chances of any follow-up are in serious doubt. At this critical time in world affairs, the US has better things to do with its military than police the EEZs of so-called “friends” halfway around the world—and perhaps start a conflict with a world power in the process.