As secretary of state in the Trump administration, Mike Pompeo was a strong supporter of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Photo: AFP / Eric Baradat

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July 13 policy statement on the South China Sea made clear that Washington supports the specifics of the Philippines-China arbitration decision. More important, it declared that the US considers Beijing’s interference with Southeast Asian countries’ fishing or oil exploration and exploitation in their legitimate maritime zones – and China’s own exploration/exploitation there – to be “unlawful” and “bullying.”

The US government clearly hopes this statement will deter China’s aggressive behavior and rally Southeast Asian nations to its side. But its consequences for US-China relations and stability in the South China Sea depend in large part on whether and how the US attempts to back it up.

As Southeast Asia politics expert Murray Hiebert observes, the problem for the US and its potential “allies” in Southeast Asia is that the US move would “only be effective if it follows up with claimant states in the region to find ways to exert more pressure against China.”

But predicting US policy and actions in the South China Sea in the last stages of a dying administration is a crap shoot. Indeed, some think this may only be an election-year ploy to unite the country against the “China threat.” While the language will last beyond a change in US administrations, its implementation will vary with these changes.

Most affected countries, including China, will probably wait for the next US administration to change their approach – if they decide to do so. All Southeast Asian countries, including China’s main protagonist, Vietnam, have been relatively muted in their responses to Pompeo’s statement. This indicates that none want to get drawn further into the tightening US-China tensions – at least right now.

Moreover, they are not sure the US will have their backs – in the short and long run – if they side with it. Vietnam in particular has to be very careful. If China comes to think the US is pulling Vietnam’s strings, the consequences could get ugly.

Despite these intimidating uncertainties, some pundits are trying to predict—or perhaps promote – their preferred future. A common thread among US analysts is the hope that the statement “paves the way for the US to take stronger actions to challenge China’s assertive moves in the sea.” Indeed, many hope that if China continues such actions, the US will intervene – both militarily and with sanctions.

But prominent China critic Bill Hayton warns that “using power to protect legitimate rights without crossing the line into war will be a tough challenge for the US and its friends, partners, and allies in Southeast Asia.” He recognizes that “there would be little domestic support for the US shedding blood to protect someone else’s oil nor much Southeast Asian support for the country using the region to fight a kinetic battle with China.”

Leading Australian pundit Hugh White thinks this US strategy ignores the economic and longer-term geopolitical reasons some of these countries have been unwilling to confront China militarily, even with US backing. As such it overestimates Southeast Asian countries supportive responses.

To the contrary, Gregory Poling, another prominent China critic is optimistic that “if over time the US takes action to address this issue, it will strengthen spines in the region.”

Jay Batongbacal, a leading Philippines expert on this matter, agrees, saying: “The declaration establishes a justification for cooperation and policy coordination between the US and concerned Southeast Asian countries against China’s activities.” This would undoubtedly include stepped-up military aid, training and sales to those willing to “cooperate.”

But China is unlikely to be cowed by a show of force by anyone. As White says, Beijing seems increasingly unconvinced “that America has the will to actually go to war with China.” This will be increasingly so as China’s domestic nationalism and military and economic power grow and the US continues to be distracted by domestic issues and its foreign policy continues to be in disarray.

Usual advocates of a more muscular US response to China in the South China Sea are now expressing concern that attempts to implement the new policy may result in a clash with China there. Poling thinks that “it might lead China to double down out of a sense of nationalism.” Oriana Skylar Mastro, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, observes that “China could see military action as its only recourse if it loses the diplomatic option to assert its sovereignty claims.”

Some see the “new” policy as having another downside. To Shariman Lockman of Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, the US presence is a “double-edged sword” that has “the effect of both deterring but also potentially escalating matters with China … 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.”

Still others see the statement and any attempt to implement it as potentially counterproductive for stability and peace in the South China Sea. Some think that it may stimulate China to “step up [its] challenges against … US activities” there.

Also, as former US National Security Council official Michael Green warns, it could “tempt smaller states to do things that could provoke Beijing and we would then own.”

Indeed, Chen Xiangmiao of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, thinks that “if there is a maritime clash with Vietnam, Malaysia or the Philippines, the US will have an excuse to step in, and that could trigger a direct military conflict between China and the US.”

If the US tries to enforce the statement’s specifics or rival claimants test the US verbal backing, it is clear that this “new” policy will increase both tensions and dangerous incidents – intended or not.

Other possible consequences include further delays and even setbacks in negotiating a Code of Conduct because ASEAN claimants might be “emboldened to pursue oil and gas activities in their respective EEZs,” or exclusive economic zones.

But Collin Koh of Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies thinks the opposite. “For ASEAN member states, the fear of intensified Sino-US rivalry and rising tension in the South China Sea would mean having to stress the urgency of promulgating this code.”

Another possibility is legal action akin to the route that the Philippines took. Pompeo told reporters that he would “consider protecting third countries against China through legal means” and cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This may encourage some like Vietnam to pursue judicial action against China, although there would be formidable political disadvantages in doing so.

Obviously there is a wide range of views and considerable disagreement among “experts” as to the possible consequences of this statement – and any attempts to enforce it. This demonstrates the folly of trying to predict which if any of these consequences may ensue, especially with a likely change in administration coming in the US.

But one thing is certain. It has increased tension and the risk of conflict in the South China Sea.

Mark Valencia

Mark Valencia is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Huayang Institute for Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance.