In the wake of the arbitration case, in which the Philippines’ claims prevailed over China’s regarding South China Sea, both countries are confronted with diplomatic difficulties on how to ease the tensions not only in terms of their bilateral ties, but also putting China-ASEAN cooperation back on track. It seems the Philippines has realized the strife with China over the maritime disputes in South China Sea could not be a game of chicken and negotiation is the only way to avoid extra losses, based on which a favorable turn is right around the corner.
In spite of a possible détente among related parties, there is no indication that some external factors hanging over the South China Sea are going to be dispelled. On the contrary, relaxed relations between the disputing parties on this matter may expose the external forces to front stage, which is being vindicated by what the US, Japan and Australia have proclaimed concerning the arbitral tribunal’s award of July 12 in their trilateral statement.
Suppose China and the Philippines reach a new consensus in resolving their disputes and the Code of Conduct (COC) is put on the schedule again, could it be expected that the US and its other Asia-Pacific allies outside the region would remain outsiders? This question matters for the US because it has to make clear what role it wants to play in the region, a peacekeeper or a troublemaker, as questioned by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Vientiane, Laos.
Setting aside the inner story of the arbitration, the award made by the arbitral tribunal would be a great advantage which the US could take to maximize its interests under the cover of freedom of navigation. The maritime disputes between China and other claiming countries in the South China Sea blind them to a fact that the freedom of navigation underscored by the US would pose a greater challenge to the sovereignty of both China and all other related ASEAN countries, which as a whole disagree with the US over its rights in their surrounding waters.
Recalling how the US failed the Philippines in its conflict over Huangyan Island with China in 2012 and why the US freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) prevail in US policy debates since last year, it could easily be detected what the US cares about in the South China Sea. That being the case, the cooling of the tensions between China and ASEAN could only trigger the direct intervention of the US and its allies outside the South China Sea. Unfortunately for China and ASEAN countries, their return to negotiation is just one side of the story that would not offset the negative effect of external forces on the stability of the region.
The US is being honest when it says that it supports the Philippines getting back to negotiation with China, but with a baseline that both parties abide by the rule of international law, or rather, the July 12th award by the arbitral tribunal specifically.
From its strategic perspective, the US is beyond reproach in maintaining the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and US officials are not bluffing when they describe it as a top interest. It is predictable that the US will go ahead with its FONOP, challenging the sovereign rights of the islands controlled by China, and the focus of maritime disputes in the South China Sea will probably shift to the wrangle between China and the US-led external forces.
But as a global power, the US may not be fully aware that it’s falling into a double strategic dilemma due to the decrease of its capabilities, both in terms of hard power and diplomatic faux pas. Firstly, the US may lose its grip on the course of events by continuously sending fuzzy signals to ASEAN claimant countries that go against its peacekeeping rhetoric. It has to reconsider how to achieve a delicate balance between maintaining its dominance and the stability of the region.
Secondly, it is not be a wise idea for the US to push China into a corner in the way it deals with Russia in Eastern Europe, especially under the guise of international law based on a ridiculous verdict that would only make its morality and credibility dwindle.
As to the involvement of Japan and Australia in the disputes, it’s not an exaggeration to describe it as the biggest mistake of the US, adding unnecessary risk to its Asia-Pacific strategy while gaining no effective support from them. Considering the trilateral statement, it’s more like a fulfillment of the ambitions of Japan to project its power out of East Asia, which would only cause trouble for the US-led alliance.
The author is assistant research fellow with the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.