The Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry conducts operations in the South China Sea in 2020. Photo: AFP / Samuel Hardgrove / US Navy

A recent article in the prestigious American journal Foreign Affairs made a series of recommendations for US policy in the South China Sea. However, US policymakers should beware of such recommendations based on questionable assumptions and wishful thinking. Following them could lead to another US foreign-policy failure.

The article in essence supports the idea of the US using Southeast Asian states’ maritime grievances with China to advance its own regional strategy to contain China. But it does not fully appreciate that these Southeast Asian maritime claimants are walking a tightrope between policies that further their main goals of economic development – for which good relations with China are critical – and pursuing their maritime claims.

The military involvement of the US in these issues on behalf of the Southeast Asia claimants is likely to upset this balance and threaten their security.

The article’s premise is that “in much of Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, elites and the broader public judge Washington’s commitment to the region based in part on whether it defends their maritime rights.”

First of all, the Philippines and Vietnam are not “much of Southeast Asia.” In fact besides these two only Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia have maritime claims in the South China Sea and they are wary of US military involvement in the issues.

Second, the use of the phrase “in part” provides considerable ambiguity. I would argue that those nations that are directly involved or affected judge US involvement in terms of its contribution to furthering their interests – not the broader strategic US interests – that are the ulterior motive of US military involvement in the South China Sea.

The US wants to contain China’s military domination of its near seas and in particular to deny it sanctuary in the South China Sea for its nuclear retaliatory strike submarines.

In the hope that with US backing these countries will “stand up to China” the article in essence suggests that the US use these countries as pawns in its struggle with China for regional dominance. Indeed, it views these issues through the prism of US interests, not those of Southeast Asians who will suffer the political and economic blowback from China. Southeast Asian countries want both the US and China to stop pressing them to choose sides and to avoid military conflict. 

The piece proclaims “an opportunity to revitalize US policy in the South China Sea.” It suggests that “the Biden administration seize upon this ‘breakthrough’ [the extension of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines] to lay the foundations for an international coalition that supports a rules-based maritime order.” 

But as the article also indicates, the claimants – especially the forefront states Vietnam and the Philippines – cannot unite on these issues. It points out that no regional country wants to take the lead and that most are unwilling to stand up to China.

As it says, “Vietnamese leaders prefer to let others, especially the Philippines, pay the price for such public opposition to Beijing.”

Another problem is that the US – alone among major powers – has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that is supposed to guide nations’ behavior as the foundation of a “rules-based maritime order.”

This meandering essay also acknowledges that “there are limits to how aggressive Southeast Asians can be. They are too economically exposed to China and lack the geopolitical heft to impose serious costs on Beijing….”

Indeed, this is so. Moreover, US interests are constantly changing and promises of US support are unreliable. The debacles in Vietnam and now Afghanistan attest to this fact. Further, as the piece says, the US “and like-minded countries cannot alter China’s behavior at sea without the active participation of these regional claimants.” 

The article suggests that “the US and Philippine defense establishments lay the groundwork to rapidly implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement under [President Rodrigo] Duterte’s successor.” This includes the deployment of US missiles in the Philippines, which would threaten China and make it a Chinese target in the event of a US-China conflict.

It predicts that “even if Duterte’s government does not fully embrace the 2016 arbitral ruling [against China] or work to assemble an international coalition in support of its rights, its successor probably will.” This is wishful thinking. It is not clear that Duterte’s successor will make Filipinos’ security subservient to the hegemonic interests of the US.

Indeed, it is possible that Duterte will run for and be elected vice-president. The piece views Philippine domestic politics through the lens of its Americanophiles and seems blind to the uncomfortable fact that despite opposition to Duterte’s China policy, he and his nationalism remain very popular with the masses.

The piece assumes that Duterte’s agreement to extend the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was due to the “promise of Covid vaccines and the ego boost Duterte received from US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit” as well as “pressure from both the Philippine defense establishment and the country’s political elites.”

But there may be other hidden factors. The Philippines has long wanted assurances that US military personnel who commit crimes will be tried under Philippine law and that the US would not emplace nuclear weapons in the Philippines. Perhaps such assurances played a role in Duterte’s extension of the VFA. This possibility should be mentioned because if true, it would mean that the extension was on Philippine terms, not America’s.

The piece quotes with praise the hypocritical statement of this year’s Group of Seven meeting that all members “strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions in the East China and South China Sea.” This statement was aimed at China’s actions. But the reality is that all territorial claimants in the South China Sea have changed the status quo, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, with their continued construction and militarization of features.

The continued and intensifying US military pivot to Asia and the South China Sea including the new agreement to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines has also changed the status quo and raised tensions. As the article acknowledges, the US under President Joe Biden has “continued the accelerated pace of US naval operations in the region.”

As for the East China Sea, Japan’s nationalization of the disputed rocks there changed the status quo and raised tensions.

 The article re-raises the Whitsun Reef incident sensationalized by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative directed by one of the authors. The Philippines did not “discover” the aggregation of Chinese vessels there. Americans probably provided the information in the hope that the Philippines would respond aggressively.

Moreover, the piece ignores the fact that the Chinese vessels were anchored in the territorial waters of China-claimed legal rocks. While the reason for their massing was open to interpretation and some perceived it as threatening, it was not illegal in itself.

The piece praises Vietnam for “public naming and shaming” of the Chinese maritime militia vessels gathered at Whitsun Reef. But it neglects to acknowledge that Vietnam also has a maritime militia and that its fishing vessels frequently fish in others’ claimed waters in the South China Sea. Vietnam calling out China for illegal fishing is like the pot calling the kettle black. 

Finally, the article argues that the more pressure that is put on Beijing, the more attractive a negotiated resolution to this conflict will become. I have worked on these issues for 45 years and have vetted a plethora of proposals for their resolution and made some myself. None have been taken up. There are many reasons for this – all infused by nationalism. If the authors have an acceptable plan, I and I am sure the disputants would love to see it. 

Meanwhile the best that can be done is to manage the disputes and prevent an outbreak of open kinetic conflict. Although there have been incidents over the years, the disputants have been successful in doing so. The more outside powers like the US get militarily involved, the more likely the disputes will spin out of control – to the detriment of Southeast Asia. Such proposals for US involvement based on questionable assumptions and wishful thinking are not helpful.

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.