Ambiguity afloat in South China Sea

HANOI - The United States' indecisive ''pivot'' to the Asia-Pacific has created a situation of strategic ambiguity in the South China Sea. While regional countries believe that Washington will implement the policy, including its promise to base 60% of its naval assets to the region by 2020, it remains unclear how the shift will impact on the region's escalating maritime disputes.

China's south sea fleet in a military drill in the south China sea.

There are rising regional perceptions that the US intends to fortify its presence only to the degree that it does not upset China, especially with a new, untested leadership under Xi Jinping now at the helm in Beijing. Some believe the US has shied from its earlier strong declaration at the July 2010 Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF), where Washington's then top diplomat, Hillary Clinton, said the US had a ''national interest'' in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The strategic ambiguity and questions of political will have pushed claimants in the disputes, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, to strengthen their alliances with other regional powers, including Australia, India and Japan. Some analysts believe the overlapping and somewhat competitive alliances could further destabilize the area as China begins to feel a sense of encirclement from what it views as outside actors in the disputes. Others have hedged their recent warming trends towards the US.

The strategic hedging has been driven by questions about the US's fiscal ability to implement its ''pivot'' policy in a strategically meaningful and sustainable way. With significant planned military budget cuts in Washington, US regional allies and partners now wonder whether the US will be able to keep pace with China's rising defense spending, including significant funds to bolster its naval capabilities.

Proponents of the US's capabilities point towards its new ''AirSea Battle'' operational concept, which posits that the US Navy can do more with less through the emerging paradigm of ''the many, the cheap, and the unmanned''. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute blog argued in a recent entry that ''a combination of forward deployed troops and 'offshore balancing' (for example, the ability to strike from safe distances) will allow the US to sustain a powerful presence in Asia to deter major power war.''

Following that analysis, the redeployment of some of the US's 290 major naval combatants has begun, including the forward deployment of littoral combat ships to Singapore. Washington's expanding strategic ties with Vietnam and the delivery of a second US warship (though deprived of weapons and advanced communications systems) to the Philippines had raised expectations among claimants that the US aimed to materially tilt the area's balance of power.

However, the moves raised tensions with China, which remains firmly opposed to any activity or effort to internationalize the maritime disputes. Some regional analysts believe that the US, which has maintained it does not aim to ''contain'' China and hopes it will emerge as a ''responsible'' power in the region, intends to scale back its ''pivot'' policy to avoid the risk of irking China

''Washington is creating expectations that its military presence will stabilize the situation ... but if the US does not act when a crisis occurs it might create a mistaken impression that the US is not reliable,'' said former ambassador J Stapleton Roy, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, during a conference organized by Asia Society in New York in mid-March.

Unclear commitment
Despite Washington's 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines, the US had made clear during recent stand-offs in contested waters between Manila and Beijing that its primary interest is conflict avoidance. While the treaty guarantees mutual defense over sovereign territory, it is not clear that the US would come to the Philippines' aid in a clash over disputed areas such as the contested Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

Manila recently challenged China's territorial claims through the international arbitration tribunal under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a move the US supported. While Philippine authorities branded the appeal to arbitration a ''friendly act'', China's foreign ministry spokesman said Manila's statement of claim ''was historically and legally incorrect and contained unacceptable accusations against China''.

Some believe Manila's move to internationalize the issue will undermine regional efforts through ASEAN to mediate the disputes and has motivated China to consolidate and expand its presence in contested waters during the three to four years it will likely take the tribunal to reach a decision. The tribunal lacks the authority to enforce its rulings and analysts believe that China will refuse to abide by any decision that goes against its claims.

''It remains an open question what impact the Philippines' legal claim will have on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] and its efforts to implement confidence building measures with China under the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and negotiate a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,'' Carlyle Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales Australian Defense Force Academy, wrote in a recent research paper.

Beijing has been accused by its rivals of taking an inflexible position on the disputes, including through its wide-reaching nine-dash map that effectively assumes sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. In recent months, China has fortified its claims through more maritime patrols, signaling to some a hardening of Beijing's position in response to the perceived threat of foreign involvement in the theater, including the US's promised ''pivot''.

''I do not think anti-China sentiment can work as a bond for regional countries,'' said Soeya Yoshihide, professor of political science and international relations at the Faculty of Law at Japan's Keio University. ''Southeast Asian countries are worried about rising China, but they are not ready to take a confrontational approach. It is important to work with China jointly rather than confronting it.''

China is ''waiting for them to back down and to say sorry, then they will come'' to the negotiating table, said Soeya, noting that official dialogue has bogged down in the wake of recent confrontations and events. ''China will not change its attitude.''

There is the added complication that not all ASEAN states welcome a greater US military presence to counterbalance China. Indonesia, which has played a mediating role between China and ASEAN claimants such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, is believed to prefer diplomacy over US-driven balance of power politics in the region. While some ASEAN states see a role for India and Japan in the South China Sea, others fear their involvement will further destabilize the situation.

Growing perceptions of a weakened US commitment have factored into recent strategic decision-making among claimant states. While the Philippines with its move to international arbitration has openly confronted China, Vietnam has taken a more guarded tack. Despite the sympathy and support the European Union and other countries recently offered Vietnam for its South China Sea claims under UNCLOS, there is no indication Hanoi plans to follow Manila's lead by filing a case to the tribunal.

Despite recent economic, political and military rapprochements with Washington, Vietnamese authorities continue to look more towards ASEAN's multilateral channels to accomplish a peaceful solution to the disputes. That preference has been reflected old guard Communist Party members' resistance to opening strategic ports to US naval vessels in deference to China.

With or without a US ''pivot'', Beijing is less inclined than previously to accept multilateral dialogue, through ASEAN or elsewhere, to resolve its maritime disputes. Instead, it seems China is bent on consolidating its position to preempt greater future foreign involvement in the South China Sea. By deploying more naval patrols in contested areas, China has reinforced its claims and strengthened its strategic advantage. While the US's strategic aims remain ambiguous, China's seem increasingly clear.

Roberto Tofani is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Southeast Asia. He is also the co-founder of PlanetNext (, an association of journalists committed to the concept of "information for change".

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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