US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently spoke with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in what appears to be an attempt to establish a regional coalition, or at least a cohesive response, against China. According to a statement released on 3 August, both sides spoke ‘about the continued, strong U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Partnership and the two countries’ shared goal of respect for international law in the South China Sea.’
Indonesia was not the only country in South-East Asia to receive a call from the US. Within the space of a week, Pompeo called his counterparts in the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore to discuss the South China Sea issue. The timing of those calls came a few weeks after Pompeo released a press statement on the US Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea, in which he declared:
Today we are strengthening U.S. policy in a vital, contentious part of that region — the South China Sea. We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them… The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defence of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose “might makes right” in the South China Sea or the wider region.
On 25 June, the Chairman of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), also released a statement which read:
We discussed the situation in the South China Sea, during which concerns were expressed on the land reclamations, recent developments, activities and serious incidents, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region. We reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS.
The first part of that statement is clearly directed at China and the build-up of militarised artificial islands in the South China Sea. As one of the strongest statements to come out against China from ASEAN, it is a significant step towards a more unified defence of the South China Sea. At the same time, it could be seen as an opportunity for the US to position itself as a close ally, which Pompeo looks to have attempted.
The second part, however, is more vague, and may be interpreted as a call for the US to be more cautious in its approach to the South China Sea. The freedom of navigation operations conducted by the US are seen as provocations by China and South-East Asian states also have mixed feelings about those operations. Reservations about freedom of navigation operations could become more apparent while tensions between China and the US are heightened, as any miscalculations or miscommunication from either side could have far-reaching consequences for the region. Additionally, while China and the US engage in tit-for-tat provocations, the US may be seen by some as not having the best interests of ASEAN at heart, but being more interested in turning ASEAN against China to suit its own interests.
Looking towards the short-term future, if ASEAN were to strengthen its stance against China in the South China Sea, its unlikely that the US will be the impetus behind that movement, as the risk of military confrontation may be too high. Instead, securing broader international support and continuing dialogue will be the preferred route. As China’s “wolf-worrier diplomacy” shows signs of weakness and increased resistance from around the globe, ASEAN may prefer to wait and see if China pulls back on its aggressive stance in the region.