US Defense Secretary's Troubled Southeast Asia Visit

But China’s hostile policies in SCS also gain it no friends

By: B A Hamzah

The three-day visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to drum up regional support to confront China, which started today (July 28) in Singapore couldn’t have come at a worse time as Southeast Asia struggles to roll back the Covid-19 pandemic. Governments all over the region are preoccupied with matters of life and death – and in some cases, political survival.

The challenge to public health, economy, and the social fabric is unprecedented. There is no regional country which is not worried as Covid-19 is an issue that risks mutating into a political crisis –the P variant – as thousands more people contract the hyper-transmissible Delta variant. The global death toll from this invisible virus is more than 4.2 million with infections totaling 196 million and counting.

Source: ISEAS

Hospitals are full and overflowing. In some countries, the sick must sleep on the floor and along congested corridors. Front-liners are exhausted. They too have been infected. Resources are getting scarcer and patience with inept governments is getting thinner.

The region is further troubled by the adverse impact of climate change. There is severe flooding in some parts of China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Failure to deal with these domestic concerns is slowly taking a toll on regime stability. In Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, many unhappy netizens are calling for regime change. As the trust deficit gets wider, as more people lose jobs, and the hospitals get crowded, we can expect more demonstrations and street protests.

With so many domestic issues on their plates, geopolitics has taken a back seat for many Asean member states. This is not the time to push for a geopolitical agenda like building a coalition against China, our neighbor, which has made 29 percent of its total free vaccine donations to Southeast Asia.

Of course, out of politeness, and as a matter of diplomatic courtesy bordering political expediency, the leaders in the region have lent an ear to the visiting US defense secretary. Nonetheless, while Austin’s choice for stopover in three cities is practical, skipping Indonesia, a key member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is not wise.

The Vietnam stop over makes plenty of sense. Vietnam portrays itself as being at odds with China, a situation that pleases Washington. Vietnam has gone to war with China twice recently, in 1979 and 1988. Despite losing the two wars, Vietnam continues to challenge its neighbor in the disputed Spratly and the Paracels. Although Hanoi and Beijing are at odds with each other mainly at sea, the ruling communist parties remain on good terms and maintain a cordial relationship.

The Philippines has been a treaty ally of the US since 1951 and hence Manila is expected to give unfettered support in the event of a US military confrontation with China. The unpredictable President Duterte has been critical of the US and unlikely to allow the US military to use the Philippines’ territory against China as provided for under the 1951 Treaty. Nor would he allow Philippines soldiers, in my view, to join the US to fight China under his watch. However, his six-year term will expire in May 2022, and he will be ineligible for re-election. Washington is hoping a more friendly person is elected president.

Whoever replaces Duterte as president, however, will find it hard not to continue with his foreign policy of avoiding military conflict with China in its archipelagic waters. On balance, Duterte’s overtures towards China receive a mixed review. China has not been very gracious in returning Duterte’s goodwill. Many Filipinos feel they have been shortchanged despite Duterte’s kowtow to set aside the decision of the international arbitration (2016) on China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Manila expected Beijing to be more forthcoming. On the contrary, Chinese fishermen continue to steal fish from the Scarborough Reefs. The presence of more than 200 fishing boats at Whitsun Reef in March this year – filled with cadres instead of fishermen – is alarming, business as usual.

Singapore is a key military partner of the US in the region. US forces need access to basing facilities and airfields on the island state to support military operations.

There is a presumption in Washington that the countries in Southeast Asia are supportive of the US anti-China policy. Austin’s choice of stopover suggests a US long-term policy of engaging with states in the region that Washington believes will carry the US can. After years of neglecting the region, in my view, no regime in Asean, not even Singapore, would be willing to get entangled in a US-led military confrontation with China. Although many have subscribed to the US-led economic groupings like the Pacific Economic Cooperation Community as well as the scuttled Transpacific Trade Partnership Agreement, no one in the region wants to go to war with Beijing.

Fighting a US war against China is not an option for an Asean that maintains strong cultural and economic ties with China, especially in trade. The US and other anti-China members of the Quad –the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, for example – are transactional powers; moreover, they are not from the region. Unlike the QUADS members, no Asean member states consider China a threat to their security. Even the Asean states with territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Vietnam included, do not refer to China as an enemy state in their official publications.

This doesn’t mean the claimant states tolerate China’s hostile activities in the South China Sea. However, they prefer to deal through diplomatic means and where diplomacy failed, as in the case of the Philippines, they will resort to legal recourse like arbitration, for example.

Two claimant states are likely to take China for arbitration if China continues to intimidate the activities of their companies in the disputed waters. Reports of recent aerial incursions in the Malaysian airspace in mid-June this year have not gone well with a country that has gone out of its way to please China.

As Asean countries review their security concerns and priorities the fact that China has been their neighbor since time memorial is not lost on them. Asean countries will likely stay out of any effort by those who want to wage war against China for reasons best known to them. We, in Asean have no business getting caught in the crosshairs as the US and its coalition members prepare for war. Their war is not our war.

All things equal, however, it takes two to tango. China must not take Asean friendship for granted. It cannot continue with its hostile policies in the South China Sea and hope all the claimant states will keep quiet. There is a limit to Asean patience. The minimum China could do is to stop using force in its relations with all stakeholders as a matter of national policy.

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