US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) and Philippines' Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr had different takes on their talks. Photo: AFP/Andrew Harnik

Efforts by the United States to build a coalition among its Southeast Asian allies to contest China’s claims in the South China Sea appear to have fallen flat.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts to rally support and unite Southeast Asian nations against China’s aggressive claims in the region have fallen on deaf ears.

Following its latest policy statement on the South China Sea disputes, the US State Department scrambled to build regional support against China. 

However, eager to maintain stable ties with China, key Southeast Asian countries have publicly distanced themselves from Pompeo’s statements. Others gave either a tepid response or remained internally divided on whether they should fully align with America’s toughening position. 

In a major escalation in its ongoing Cold War with Beijing, Pompeo vowed to prevent a Chinese “maritime empire” and support “Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.”

Not only did the US reject the bulk of China’s maritime claims as “unlawful,” but it also indirectly affirmed rival claims by Vietnam (Vanguard Bank), Malaysia (James Shoal), Indonesia (Natuna Besar) and the Philippines’ (Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef) that places claimed by China are within these country’s respective Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelves. 

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo walking past the country’s flag on a navy ship during his visit to a military base in the Natuna islands, which border the South China Sea, on January 8, 2020. Photo: AFP/Presidential Palace

But far from soliciting categorical support from regional allies and partners, the US has struggled to mobilize a coalition against China. 

During the recently concluded US-ASEAN Dialogue, the US State Department’s Assistant Secretary David R Stilwell and his Southeast Asian counterparts “reaffirmed the need for peaceful dispute resolution in the South China Sea in accordance with international law as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling.” 

It was the first time that both sides invoked the Manila-initiated 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, which nullified much of China’s claims in the South China Sea, marking a significant advance in diplomatic cooperation on the issue.

But US Secretary of State Pompeo was less successful in soliciting national-level support during his bilateral talks with regional counterparts, especially Singapore’s Vivian Balakrishnan and Indonesia’s Retno Marsudi. 

Though neither of the two countries are direct claimants in the South China Sea, they are largely seen as the de facto leaders in ASEAN. Both have also taken an increasingly critical stance on China’s maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters. 

Over Twitter, the US diplomat hailed a “great conversation” with his Singaporean counterpart “to discuss our desire to uphold international law in the South China Sea and promote stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”

The upbeat tone, however, was not shared by the Singaporean side, which mentioned pro forma conversations over infrastructure and research and development into Covid-19 and reiterated the “consistent and long-standing position” on the maritime disputes in characteristically measured language. 

“Singapore is not a claimant state and we do not take sides on the competing territorial claims,” read a trite statement by the Singaporean Foreign Ministry. “Our key interest is in maintaining peace and stability in one of the world’s busiest waterways.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who also gave a luke-warm support to US statements on the South China Sea. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

According to the US State Department, during Pompeo’s conversations with the Indonesian foreign minister, the two sides discussed the “continued, strong US-Indonesia Strategic Partnership and the two countries’ shared goal of respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

But the Indonesian leader left out the maritime disputes altogether, instead focusing on the “importance of increased public health and economic cooperation to rebuild America’s and Indonesia’s economies and keep the region safe.”

Though Indonesia is not a direct party to the South China Sea disputes, China’s vaguely defined and expansive nine-dash-line claims overlap with Jakarta’s waters in the North Natuna Sea.

Since last December, Indonesia’s foreign ministry has adopted an increasingly strident position on China’s excessive claims, including the submission of a note verbale to the United Nations that questioned the validity of China’s claims based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2016 arbitral tribunal award at The Hague. 

Pompeo’s explicit support for Indonesia’s claims on Natuna Besar, however, did not inspire the desired response from Indonesia, which is likely calibrating its position on the disputes and eager to maintain constructive ties with Beijing. 

In recent weeks, Chinese officials have actively leveraged an early supply of Covid-19 vaccines as well as infrastructure investments to prevent a US-led pushback over the South China Sea disputes.

As a result, even US treaty allies such as the Philippines, where top officials have publicly supported and welcomed Pompeo’s statements, are internally divided. 

In an attempt to preserve warm ties with Beijing, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made the unprecedented decision to ban Philippine naval forces from taking part in US-led joint military activities and exercises in the South China Sea. 

More than any regional leader, the China-friendly president has openly staked the success of his entire Covid-19 crisis management on the availability of vaccines before the end of the year. 

“Let’s just wait for a vaccine. Let’s wait till December, if we can just be patient … We are not going back to a ‘new normal.’ It’s going to be normal again,” Duterte said last month, after conversations with the Chinese leadership.

And yet, top Philippine officials seem supportive of the US’ toughening stance against China. During an August 6 phone call between Pompeo and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr, the two sides discussed “US support for Southeast Asian coastal states upholding their sovereign rights and interests consistent with international law.”  

The Philippine diplomatic chief downplayed Duterte’s latest decision, calling on China not to read “too much into it.” 

“Wang [Yi], you’re reading too much into a simple directive not to join these naval exercises in the CSC at this time,” Locsin said, referring to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was elated by the Philippines’ snub of US-led drills.  

“We’re sitting out this one, we don’t know if we will the next one. Okay?” the Philippine diplomat added, emphasizing the Philippines’ openness in joining future US-led naval drills in the South China Sea 

Locsin made it clear that the Philippines’ position on the disputes is “consistent and clear” and that China should comply with the 2016 arbitral tribunal award. 

“The Philippine position has been ‘consistent and clear.’ What is ours is ours under the Arbitral Award and no one else can tell us different,” the Philippine diplomat reminded China.