A diamond in the South China Sea's rough

MANILA - While Japan possesses the hard power and military hardware to keep China's territorial ambitions in relative check, smaller, less-armed countries like the Philippines and Vietnam have proven far more vulnerable. Now, an emerging Japan-led "security diamond" alliance could change the region's big-versus-small country dynamic, including in the contested South China Sea.

Since 2010, the Philippines and Vietnam have banked in varying degrees on enhanced security ties with the United States to counter China's rising maritime assertiveness. Three years into the US's so-called "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific, however, it remains unclear whether Washington's announced recommitment to the region is serving as a credible deterrent.

Apart from the US's deepening fiscal woes, a recent reshuffle in the Barack Obama administration that eased out the main architects of the "pivot" strategy - namely former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell - has raised questions about the pace, intensity and trajectory of Washington's promised policy shift.

New Secretary of State John Kerry has so far given more priority to resolving the deadlock in Syria, preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power and repairing strategic ties with an increasingly assertive Russia under Vladimir Putin's second administration.

Against the backdrop of Chinese cyber-espionage against US military and civilian entities, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has focused more on containing Sino-American tensions, including through confidence building measures with China's People's Liberation Army's (PLA) top brass, than building up Southeast Asian allies' military capabilities.

US national security adviser Thomas Donilon, widely seen as the White House's present main driver of the "pivot" strategy, is expected to step aside before the end of this year, raising more uncertainty over the second Obama administration's strategic commitment to the policy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's swift and firm consolidation of power, meanwhile, has been accompanied by an escalation in Beijing's diplomatic and para-military push into the western Pacific, an assertiveness that has sent new strategic shockwaves across the region.

With growing military expenditures, expanding naval capabilities, and rising popular nationalism, China's new leadership seems determined to play up its territorial claims in the South China Sea to preserve its legitimacy amid growing domestic problems, including signs of a weakening economy.

Stuck between an uncertain US commitment and an expansionist China, the Philippines and Vietnam have limited options. Both Southeast Asian countries have thus sought deeper security ties with Japan, significantly at a time prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks to overhaul his country's strategic orientation, including through potential changes to its pacifist constitution.

Both countries fit into Abe's proposed "security diamond" alliance network aimed at checking China's rise. That arrangement is coming into clearer view with Vietnam's former deputy foreign minister Le Luong Minh now heading the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung taking an increasingly pro-active position on resolving South China Sea disputes.

Judging by the recent statements of Vietnamese and Filipino leaders, as well as their growing bilateral coordination and pro-active diplomatic approach at the latest ASEAN Summit and recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue, it is clear that the two Southeast Asian nations are urgently seeking multilateral and regional remedies to their deepening security dilemmas in the South China Sea.

Given China's growing economy and regional profile, many Asian neighbors have sought to maintain strong bilateral relations with Beijing and find amicable means to prevent direct conflict over territorial disputes. This explains the presence of China doves within the foreign policy establishment and business circles in places such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Tokyo, too, has worked to avoid a breakdown in bilateral ties with Beijing despite their escalating duel over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Yet a series of actions by Beijing, and more specifically the People Liberation Army's Navy (PLAN) and its paramilitary wing, have provided ammunition for China hawks in neighboring states who see little benefit in making overtures to China and firmly believe in the necessity of coordinated, sustained counterbalancing measures.

Reconfigured balance

Despite a series of bilateral charm offensives by neighboring states, there seems to be little change in China's territorial posturing. Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam have all also come to understand the limits of American commitment to constraining China, thus precipitating growing interaction and cooperation among like-minded states wary of an abrupt reconfiguration in the region's balance of power.

Earlier hopes for swift and decisive multilateral remedies have so far been disappointed. China has squarely rejected the Philippines' push for international arbitration based on the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of their South China Sea disputes, despite vocal support by the European Union and US.

Multilateral measures under the auspices of ASEAN, meanwhile, have fallen short of developing guidelines for a binding code of conduct (CoC) in the disputed waters, leaving member states with the hollow, non-binding rhetoric of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC).

While Filipino leaders were quick to claim that the latest ASEAN summit marked a new consensus on resolving South China Sea disputes, other participating states subsequently suggested that no clear-cut position was accomplished. Without China's consent, it is unclear how concerned parties could even agree to establish the rudimentary contours of a binding CoC.

While contending that it has "indisputable" and "inherent" sovereignty over disputed maritime features, language that undercuts any serious attempt at legally disaggregating the wide-ranging territorial disputes, China's military has created a supporting narrative on the ground through what some strategic analysts refer to as a "cabbage strategy".

The Chinese Navy has recently supported a batch of surveillance vessels to escort so-called "fishermen" in disputed South China Sea features. Backed by the might of Chinese military and para-military elements, the fishermen have repeatedly and progressively forayed into the exclusive economic zones claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.

So far, Vietnam has been the most consistent and pro-active among its peers in containing tensions with China. At the same time, the US's "pivot" was announced in Hanoi under Vietnam's ASEAN leadership, which also included a dramatic re-focusing on developing a binding CoC.

Absent Vietnam's support, the Philippines would have found itself in an isolated position within a regional body consisting of China's major trade partners (including Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand) and strategic allies (Cambodia and Laos), making it difficult for Manila to tilt the scale in favor of a more assertive ASEAN position vis-a-vis China. More cognizant than most of the risks posed by China's expanding military capabilities, Vietnam has also been at the forefront of efforts to constrain China's territorial posturing by rallying regional support for a diplomatic resolution of the disputes.

Under the new leadership of seasoned Vietnamese diplomat Minh, ASEAN has gradually reconstituted itself after the fiasco under Cambodia's regional chairmanship, which threatened the integrity of the regional body. Brunei, the new ASEAN chair, seems to have responded positively to Minh's initiatives, which have gained considerable support from big founding members such as Indonesia.

"The trend of increased engagement and competition, particularly by big powers, not only offers positive elements but also involves negative risks that require us to take initiative and work together," said Vietnamese Prime Minister Dung at the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue, which brought together top security officials and experts from across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. "To build strategic trust, we ourselves need to abide by international law, to uphold the responsibilities of nations, especially of major powers, and work to improve the efficiency of multilateral security cooperation mechanisms."

Earlier this year, the Vietnamese leader also held crucial bilateral talks with Philippine President Benigno Aquino on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, a clear sign of close bilateral coordination on the South China Sea disputes. Vietnam is thus playing a central role in institutionalizing closer coordination among like-minded states, giving ballast to an emerging new "security diamond" in the region.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's (ADMU) Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book The Economics of the Arab Spring: How Globalization Failed the Arab World, Zed Books, 2014. He can be reached at atjrheydarian@gmail.com.

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