The US amphibious assault ship USS America arrives at Sattahip Naval Base in Chonburi, Thailand, ahead of the joint 'Cobra Gold' military exercise on February 22, 2020. Photo: AFP / Handout / Royal Thai Navy

HAIKOU – In late September, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen bitterly complained to the UN General Assembly that “some countries” were interfering in its internal affairs. This cry in the wilderness was only hint of the diplomatic anguish as Southeast Asian countries are increasingly being squeezed between China and the US in the two superpowers’ struggle for military dominance in the region.

Cambodia’s particular concern is that the US sanctioned the Chinese company Union Development Group that is developing a huge tourist zone along its coast. The given reasons included “being a front for China to advance its ambition to project power globally.” The US is worried that China might build military bases or support facilities at the project – something China denies and Cambodia says it will not allow.

Other Southeast Asian countries are clearly being pressed to assist the US military effort to contain China – and some are doing so.

The Philippines and Thailand are still US allies and facilitate US strategy by providing “places” for American military assets. Royal Thai Air Force bases are an important element in the Pentagon’s “forward positioning” strategy. Despite an on-again, off-again agreement between the US and the Philippines, there is a continuing US military presence at five bases there – including some near the South China Sea.

Malaysia’s Butterworth Royal Air force Base is used by US ally Australia and is the headquarters of the Five Power Defense Arrangements’ Integrated Area Defense System. This arrangement also includes US ally the UK, as well as Singapore.

But the placement of US forces around part of the perimeter of the South China Sea is only the most visible part of the spectrum. The US flies hundreds of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions every year over China’s coastal and offshore defense installations. Some fly out of the Philippines and Singapore, and Malaysia has supposedly offered access for refueling US spy planes in Labuan.

The US is also considering supplying Vietnam with spy planes that Vietnam will likely use to surveil Chinese activities and share the results.

Moreover, some US ISR flights may come out of northern Australia and eventually even the Cocos Islands – and overfly Indonesia – thus drawing Canberra into the political imbroglio.

Most of these “hosts” deny or are defensive about these associations. Of course, China does not buy their “explanations” and likely considers the hosting of these probes an unfriendly act. That could make these “US assets” targets should there be an outbreak of hostilities.

Countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must realize that these military associations are sending political signals that are quite different from their neutralist rhetoric. Indeed, facilitation of US intelligence probes against China only draws them deeper into the divide.

Now India has allowed the US to refuel and obtain logistics support for an armed Boeing P-8 Poseidon at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. It is not clear if this was a one-off or the beginning of a pattern. If the latter, China may well consider that by its actions India is for practical purposes no longer “non-aligned.”

The great irony is that India has a very similar position to that of China regarding US spying in its exclusive economic zones (EEZs). India disagrees with the US interpretation of the relevant UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provision that prohibits marine scientific research in a foreign EEZ without the coastal state’s consent.

The US holds that such activities are military surveys and thus exempt from the consent regime. But this is a minority view in Asia. Moreover the US is not a party to UNCLOS, the foundation of international order at sea. It thus has little legitimacy or credibility in unilaterally interpreting particular provisions of this “package deal” to its advantage.

Now, according to Peking University’s South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI), between September 8 and 10 a US Air Force electromagnetic signals detection and collection aircraft used identification codes assigned to Malaysian civilian aircraft while lingering in international airspace between Hainan and the Paracel Islands.

Again on September 22 a USAF ground surveillance, battle management and command and control aircraft flew over the Yellow Sea using a transponder code assigned to a Philippine commercial airliner.

If true, this is an unsafe practice and a violation of international norms. Such subterfuge puts the Philippines and Malaysia in a quandary. Obvious questions are, did they know of and authorize this charade? If they did not, why haven’t they publicly said so?

Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr indicated that Manila was unaware of this US practice. He worried that the incident could “incriminate” the Philippines and requested an explanation from the US Embassy.

The point is that despite Southeast Asian countries’ profession of neutrality regarding US-China issues in the South China Sea, some are in essence aiding and abetting the US and will likely become targets if US-China hostilities break out.

They may be fooling their publics, but they are not fooling the main protagonists that continue to push and pull individual ASEAN members and ASEAN as a whole to their side.

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Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.