A Tense Asia Greets US Reemergence with Relief

Washington abandons US-first doctrine to assert itself in the South China Sea

In quick succession, the US has delivered two blows to China’s interests both globally and in Asia in particular: denunciation of China’s claims in the South China Sea, and removal of Hong Kong’s special status from the point of view of trade and travel.

The latter has received the most attention, coming in the wake of China’s imposition of its sweeping July 1 National Security Law on the territory. However, for the longer term, the US decision last week to base its policy towards the South China Sea on the 2016 judgment in a case brought by the Philippines of the Court of Arbitration in respect of the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) aligns it with the positions of the non-Chinese littoral states, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.

Although the Obama administration had welcomed the 2016 judgment, it had failed to put its name to the specifics which are so important. Hitherto, the US position on the various island and EEZ claims had been mute while insisting on the rights of freedom of navigation in the seas. Ironically the US has never ratified UNCLOS although successive administrations have supported it in practice.

The US announcement coincided with the publicized presence of two US aircraft carriers in the sea sailing close to the Chinese-claimed islands. The Court had deemed that none of the rocks, shoals and other features in the sea qualified was sufficient to have an EEZ and could only claim a 12-mile territorial limit. It also rejected China’s nine-dash line claims based on its version of history, which simply ignores the history of the Malay and Vietnamese peoples who have lived on most of its shores and sailed its seas for at least four millennia.

The unspoken assumption is that these people are China’s traditional “barbarian” neighbors and thus of little account and in need of China’s civilizing domination

The US announcement in fact followed a clear hardening of the positions of most of the littoral states. The Philippines, which at the behest of Duterte in search of Chinese money had shelved its court victory and promised to end its Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, shifted its position.

Probably in response to unhappiness in the military, Malacanang backtracked on ending the VFA and then-Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana publicly welcomed the US statement. Indonesia, in its typical understated way, described the US move as “normal.” The Jakarta government had in June written a letter to the UN Secretary-General directly rejecting China’s sea claims and its support for the arbitration decision.

All this was music to the ears of Vietnam which has always taken an unyielding stance towards China, and now as chair of ASEAN, has been urging its neighbors to be more robust. Now the only one of the littoral states, apart from tiny Brunei, not to say anything against China is Malaysia. Its politicians have been so pre-occupied by domestic squabbles, and so open to Chinese financial inducements, that the government has made no response to repeated Chinese incursions into their waters off Sabah and Sarawak.

That a Trump-led US should now find loose Asian allies lining up in its support is in many ways an ill-deserved surprise. The president has spent most of the past three and a half years angering the region by trashing the Trans-Pacific Partnership project, generally talking tough on trade to a region which has long prospered on trade liberalization. An “America First” policy left little room for regarding the US as a reliable ally.

But Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s series of nationalistic responses not merely to the US but towards India and on issues ranging from Xinjiang to Covid-19 has made others more wary. Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong is in the same category. No governments like demonstrators but generations in Asia have grown confidence in Hong Kong as an open and liberal place, with reliable courts and where one could safely store one’s wealth. China would have no reason to wreck a place where so many rich mainlanders had invested.

Quite what the impact of the US (and possibly others) withdrawing Hong Kong’s privileges will be can only emerge over time. For sure, more official mainland money will come, and mainland company listings in particular, which will ensure prosperity for some aspects of its economy. But a gradual exodus of foreign bankers, lawyers, and foreign-run service industries such as restaurants and schools which live off them is inevitable – and can only be speeded up by the Covid lockdown of travel. The international press, fearing prosecution under the new law, is already beginning to vote with its feet. The New York Times has announced it would move half of its Hong Kong-based staff to Korea.

As for Hong Kong’s people, they now face difficult choices as well as new restrictions on travel and educational opportunities. Some other Asian locations will of course benefit, at least in the short term. Singapore is the most obvious. But the example of Chinese nationalist intolerance of foreigners and their ideas is plain to see. If China feels surrounded by critics or temporary friends (eg Russia) it is largely its own doing. The US may not belong in the region, but few want it to go, leaving China more than ever able to exercise the “historic right” of the Chinese people to dominate the region and its routes.

Trump – and other issues – have lowered the standing of the US in the world. But other nations look to their own self-interest, which because of China’s growing belligerence is now mostly more aligned with the US than for some time. A Trump defeat in November would also make Washington a more predictable partner.

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