A US naval vessel in the South China Sea in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

When US Vice President Mike Pence flew on Tuesday over the South China Sea in transit to the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) summit in Singapore, his air force plane passed within 50 miles of Chinese outposts in the contested Spratly Islands.

Upon landing at the summit, attended by regional leaders, Pence said his overflight was a type of “freedom of navigation” operation and that it was a message to China that the US “will not be intimidated” by Beijing’s warnings against US operations in areas it claims in the maritime region.

While Asean and China continue to negotiate a “code of conduct” in the disputed areas, talks that have been ongoing since 2002, President Donald Trump’s administration has made clear through toughened rhetoric and action that it won’t accept any final agreement that undermines or infringes on its interests in the area.

In recent months, the US Navy has upped the frequency of its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. Earlier this month, for the first time, the US openly called on China to reverse its recent deployment of missiles and other advanced military assets to the area.

The South China Sea disputes were front and center at the recently concluded US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in Washington, where US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis held “frank and open” discussions with China’s senior Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.

At the meeting, American officials “called on China to withdraw its missile systems from disputed features in the Spratly Islands, and reaffirmed that all countries should avoid addressing disputes through coercion or intimidation,” according to a Pentagon statement.

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis shakes hands with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe watched by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi. Photo: AFP

“We have continued concerns about China’s activities and militarization in the South China Sea,” Pompeo said following the dialogue. “We pressed China to live up to its past commitments [not to militarize disputed land features] in this area.”

Underscoring that message, Asean leaders today (November 15) in a joint statement raised their collective “concern” over land reclamations and activities in the South China Sea, though without naming China specifically.

The joint statement said the activities “have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.” Significantly, the word “concern” was omitted in the joint statement during the Philippines’ chairmanship of Asean in 2017.

Back in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping reassured former US President Barack Obama at the White House’s Rose Garden that Beijing would not militarize its then newly-built artificial islands in the South China Sea.

“I conveyed to President Xi our significant concerns over land reclamation, construction and the militarization of disputed areas, which makes it harder for countries in the region to resolve disagreements peacefully,” Obama said back then.

The Chinese leader said then that “[r]elevant construction activity that China is undertaking in the [Spratly] Islands does not target or impact any country and there is no intention to militarize [them].”

A satellite image released by the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative shows construction of possible radar towers in the Spratly Islands. Photo: AMTI DigitalGlobe handout via Reuters

But China’s deployment of surface-to-air missiles and anti-cruise missile systems to contested islands earlier this year have belied Xi’s promise. It wasn’t clear at first if the weapons deployments were temporary for training purposes, but America’s recent call for their removal indicates they are still in place.

During a media briefing in Singapore ahead of the Asean summit, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said, “the outcome has to be mutually acceptable, and also has to be acceptable to all the countries that have legitimate maritime and naval rights to transit and other associate rights that we don’t want to see infringed.”

Mattis, meanwhile, made it clear during his visit to Singapore on November 9 that Washington will continue, “to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand,” and declared the US “cannot accept the [China’s] militarization of the South China Sea or any coercion in this region.”

In effect, the US is pressuring Asean against acquiescing to Beijing through a compromised code of conduct agreement that bolsters China’s maritime power while acknowledging its wide-reaching claims to the sea. Beijing’s “nine-dash line” map encircles 90% of the South China Sea as Chinese territory.

This marks a major departure from Washington’s traditional policy, where it has broadly supported the regional grouping’s efforts to tame China’s maritime ambitions through diplomatic engagement and negotiations. In contrast, under Trump’s more muscular policy, Washington is now pressuring Asean to stand up to China or get out of the way.

US Vice President Mike Pence (R) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before the start of the 13th East Asia summit plenary session at the Asean summit in Singapore, November 15, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Asean’s joint statement “emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states” that “could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”

It also reaffirmed a shared commitment to “maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region.

But Washington is now openly inserting itself into the center of ongoing efforts to shape the rules in one of the world’s most important sea lanes, through which as much as US$5 trillion worth of trade flows each year.

The US’ increasing diplomatic assertiveness is partly driven by deepening frustrations over the prolonged negotiations of a code of conduct, a process that formally began almost two decades ago without any major breakthrough to date.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose nation will oversee the negotiations as the new Asean-China country coordinator, aimed to reassured critics by stating, “The Philippines is prepared to do its part. We are committed to work with all concerned parties in the substantive negotiations and early conclusion of an effective code of conduct.”

At the same time, the Filipino president has been criticized for his China-friendly policies, including his refusal to invoke The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling against China’s South China Sea claims vis-à-vis the Philippines.

The original intent behind the negotiation of a code of conduct was to place constraints on claimant states’ unilateral efforts to challenge the status quo and impose their will at the expense of regional security and international law.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy soldiers patrol at Woody Island, in the Paracel Archipelago in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

In recent years, however, China has dragged its feet in the code of conduct negotiations, while changing the facts on the ground by reclaiming contested islands and now placing anti-missile systems on them.

There is thus growing suspicion across the region and beyond that China is using the code of conduct negotiations as diplomatic cover for its unilateral alteration of the maritime status quo at the expense of smaller claimant states, as well as external powers such the US which have enjoyed unimpeded access to the sea for the past seven decades.

During a November 13 speech ahead of the Asean summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said his country hopes the ongoing negotiations between Asean and China “will be finished in three years’ time” – making it clear that Beijing is in no rush to enter any binding multilateral agreement anytime soon.

Earlier this year, Asean and China declared amid much fanfare that they had concluded a “single draft” for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, raising hopes of a near-term conclusion of the decades-long negotiations.

During the talks, however, China controversially proposed that Southeast Asian states must cease naval exercises and military cooperation with external powers, particularly the US and Japan, in the South China Sea.

Chinese negotiators also called on claimant states to develop hydrocarbon resources in the area jointly, with minimal participation from external players.

But while Beijing’s proposals were a deliberate bid to box out external powers from the South China Sea, Washington has made it clear that it won’t sit by idly to China’s efforts to dominate the strategic waters.

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