Commentary | April 12, 2017

Vice President Pence in Indonesia: U.S. Interests in the South China Sea

By James J. Przystup Op-Ed

"We’re not expecting the United States to get involved in any fight we might have with China; rather, our concern is what are you doing to protect and advance your interests?"  

—Senior Southeast Asian diplomat, circa late 2014.

If the past decade is prologue, sometime in the next four years developments in the South China Sea will again call into question U.S. interests and commitments in Southeast Asia.  The mid-April visit of Vice President Pence to Indonesia and Australia offers an opportunity to define U.S. policy toward the region.

For some perspective, a brief look back:    

In 2013, Beijing began land-reclamation projects on reefs in the Spratly islands, which it had occupied and claimed as being under Chinese sovereignty.  The Obama administration responded with a series of demarches opposing unilateral change in the status quo and championing a rules-based order to govern activities in the region, which Beijing summarily dismissed and continued land-reclamation activities.

In Washington, by early 2015, there was a growing recognition of the need for a response beyond diplomacy.  This resulted in the Freedom of Navigation operation that took place in October 2015, a month after the Obama-Xi Summit in California and two months before the Climate Change summit in Paris – reflecting President Obama’s climate change and China policy priorities.  

At the September Summit, President Xi promised that China would not “militarize” the newly created islands.  Recently, CSIS’ Maritime Transparency Initiative reported that China was nearing completion of military and dual-use infrastructure projects on Subi, Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs, effecting a unilateral change in the status quo.  

Having achieved its strategic objectives, Beijing is now tactically pivoting from the assertiveness that characterized Chinese policy since 2010 and moving to consolidate the new status quo.  In a series of deals with the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam – all states involved in the South China Sea disputes—Beijing has moved to recover the diplomatic initiative and to champion regional cooperation (See the remarks of Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin at the Boao Forum, March 26, 2017) and to push for a June conclusion of a Code of Conduct to govern activities in the South China Sea, long advocated by U.S. diplomacy   

Where do we go from here:   

First: Facing facts: 

  • China’s actions have effected a new status quo in the South China Sea, one that, at least in peacetime, will enhance Chinese influence in the region.  In the absence of conflict with China, it is not within U.S. power to reverse this development. To insist that this “really cannot be allowed to stand” (Sebastian Gorka, Briebart News, March 31), without acting to reverse the new status quo will only speak to a hollowness in U.S. policy.  See President Obama/Syria/Red Lines.  
  • China is the leading trading partner with countries across the Asia-Pacific region and is prepared to exercise that leverage to influence outcomes in its direction, as the Philippines, Vietnam and now South Korea have experienced.   
  • The countries of Southeast Asia are hedging -- against both growing Chinese influence and a perception of a declining U.S. interest in the region.  Southeast Asia is focused overwhelmingly on its own economic development which is dependent on the regional stability and the observance of a rules-based order in the maritime domain – and China.    
  • In recent conversations, senior officials from the region were resigned to the fact that China has effectively changed the status quo in the South China Sea and concerned that the United States, in shaping a response, could over-react, potentially destabilizing the region and putting prosperity at risk.  Putting the best face on the new status quo, one remarked “you’re not going to get them off the islands and they’re not going to stop you from sailing through the South China Sea.  In terms of U.S. interests, what’s wrong with that?”
  • U.S. efforts to shape the region’s trading order have collapsed with the decision to withdraw from TPP, raising questions in Southeast Asia of U.S. leadership and commitment.  At the same time, Southeast Asia is looking to Washington for policy and actions that reaffirm U.S. interests but do not put stability and prosperity at risk.

U.S. Interests and Policy:

U.S. national interests are both enduring and limited: freedom of navigation, access to and through Southeast Asia, and peaceful resolution of disputes.  These interests are widely shared across the region.  Thus, a clear and forceful statement of the historic U.S. interest in freedom of navigation, supported by a commitment to regular Freedom of Navigation operations, will be well received in Southeast Asia -- reassurance that the U.S. will act to protect its interests.  Vice President Pence’s visit to Indonesia in mid-April presents a much-awaited policy opportunity.  

At the same time, an enhanced navy presence in the South China Sea, stepped-up, regularized port calls, training and HA/DR exercises with U.S. strategic partners across the region, will testify to a quiet determination to maintain and enhance key strategic relationships.  U.S. policy should also focus on capacity building in the maritime domain, a shared interest among all maritime states in Southeast Asia.  Policy coordination with Japan on capacity building can have a multiplier effect. 

U.S. diplomacy should, as a statement of principle, continue to support the July 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration which rejected China’s expansive Nine-Dash-Line claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea.  This UNCLOS-based ruling reaffirms a universal interest in a rules-based order to govern the maritime domain.   Also, with respect to Southeast Asia, Vice President Pence, while in Indonesia, should reaffirm U.S. support for ASEAN and announce that President Trump will attend this year’s APEC Summit in Vietnam and the East Asian Summit in the Philippines. 

Ultimately, policy should recognize both our limited interests and the limited nature of American power to reverse the new status quo in the Spratly islands, short of conflict with China.   Intimations about the use of force to reverse the status quo, potentially destabilizing the region, will only play against our long-term strategic interests in strengthening relations with strategic partners in Southeast Asia. If we are to use force, it should be to safeguard our interest in freedom of navigation in the air and maritime domains.

In the case of the South China Sea, TR’s maxim should guide policy.


The views expressed in this op-ed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.