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Why U.S. South China Sea policy is failing

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As ASEAN and its dialogue partners gather in the Philippines for their annual political and security gab-fest — the East Asian Summit — there is a grudging but growing recognition that U.S. policy regarding the South China Sea imbroglio has failed. The U.S. policy community needs to acknowledge its shortcomings on these issues and going forward benefit from the lessons learned.

According to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking to the press in Beijing on Nov. 9, the U.S. position on the South China Sea issues is that “we insist on upholding the freedom of navigation that claimants be consistent with international law and that claimants should stop construction and militarization of outposts. …” Earlier, on Oct. 18, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies he declared “… we will not shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order and where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries and disadvantages the U.S. and our friends.” These are brave words — but that is exactly what has happened — at least in the eyes of many Southeast Asian countries.

More generally, U.S. policy objectives in the South China Sea are the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes on the basis of international law including the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), respect for legal and diplomatic processes and the early conclusion of a robust, binding Code of Conduct.

But aside from the freedom of commercial navigation — which has not been and is unlikely to be threatened — these objectives have not been met. Moreover they are unlikely to be met in the foreseeable future using the same tried and failed tactics.

China has not been deterred by even stepped-up U.S. Freedom of Navigation exercises nor numerous admonishments from occupying, building and — according to the U.S. — militarizing features there. Nor have the other claimants including U.S. ally the Philippines — as well as Vietnam — which the U.S. is obviously trying to draw into an anti-China coalition. Indeed, during his nomination hearings, the new U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Daniel Krintenbrink, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that one of the U.S. policy priorities is to strengthen maritime security cooperation with Vietnam and to “resist coercion in the South China Sea.”

The U.S. tactical and strategic failures are likely to continue for several reasons. First of all, its strategy depends in part on uniting ASEAN to support the U.S. position against China’s actions there. However the worm turned and U.S. ally the Philippines “defected” from the effort and is now dealing with China on its own independently of the U.S.

The U.S. strongly supported the Aquino administration’s suit brought against China under the auspices of the UNCLOS dispute resolution process. Indeed, some suspect that the U.S. instigated the Philippines to file it in the first place. However the new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, decided that the Philippines would benefit more by seeking practical arrangements with China rather than combating it. One factor in his decision was his lack of confidence that the U.S. would back it up if push came to shove.

But Duterte’s distrust of the U.S. is long standing and has its roots in its pompous, patronizing and predatory treatment of the Philippines and Filipinos — and particularly Filipinas. Indeed, the U.S. seems to have a perennial blind spot as to how it is perceived in its dealings with the region in general. It is now belatedly realizing that its relationships there are much shallower and more ephemeral than it thought. It is likely to discover that this holds true as well for any expectations it may have for Vietnam to side with it against China. The fact is many Southeast Asian countries are rapidly coming to realize that a burgeoning and increasingly assertive China will be an integral, dominant part of the region for the foreseeable future and that they need to adjust to that.

Several ASEAN members like Cambodia, Laos and to some degree Thailand supported China’s position on these issues vis a vis that of the U.S. This was partly because of China’s economic largesse and partly because they simply did not see the U.S. focus on freedom of navigation for its military vessels as their concern or in their vital interest. Many Southeast Asian countries also have restrictions on foreign military activities in their maritime jurisdictional zones but do not have the will or capability to challenge U.S. abuse of their laws. Moreover four ASEAN members do not even border on the South China Sea proper — let alone have claims there. Trying to get ASEAN to unite against China was a bad bet to begin with.

As Stanford scholar Don Emmerson has recently pointed out, America’s mantra of maintaining the right to “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows” sounds “less like a welcome promise to help Southeast Asians than a boast that says : ‘Look what I can do — and you cannot.’ ” The U.S. is primarily concerned with freedom of navigation for its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance naval vessels targeting China. Moreover as a non-party, its continuous waving of UNCLOS in China’s face seems increasingly disingenuous.

China’s strategy of slow but inexorable physical and diplomatic advances in the region punctuated by pauses in which it consolidates its position has triumphed over international law. As Emmerson says it has demonstrated that “realpolitik trumps moralpolitik.” Given the Trump administration’s attention elsewhere, its need for China’s help with North Korea, and its apparent lack of interest in militarily and economically doing what would be necessary to maintain primacy or eventually even balance in the region, the upcoming 12th East Asia Summit may well — as Australian scholar Carl Thayer puts it — “mark the moment the United States ceded leadership in the Asia-Pacific region to China.”

The U.S. policy failure in the South China Sea has significant ramifications. It has caused both friends and allies to lose confidence in U.S. deterrence and diplomatic prowess. But worse it has prompted the U.S. to engage in rather obvious and clumsy geopolitical balancing to contain China.

It is now promoting a quadrangular security arrangement among Asian democracies — Australia, Japan, India and itself — as an anti-China block. This in turn will likely cause China to react diplomatically and militarily, and could even spur an arms race. In this scenario, no one will benefit least of all Southeast Asians.

Rather than fight a long term losing battle at their expense as well as that of peace and stability in the South China Sea, the U.S. should be proactive, accept reality and share power with China in its own backyard.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. This piece first appeared in the IPP Review.