US strategy in South China Sea and its impact on Vietnam and ASEAN

Vietnam and other ASEAN countries are witnessing renewed vigour from the US with regard to the developments in South China Sea (SCS). The redeployment of troops from Europe to Southeast Asia, and undertaking major maritime initiatives to counter Chinese aggression have been talked in the international media. Be it the US forces undertaking elephant walk (lining up all fighter aircrafts on the tarmac) in Guam or the movement of Carrier Battle Group USS Nimitz in South China Sea and the Indian Ocean region. Undertaking massive show of military strength and deploying sophisticated bombers in the region are a testimony to US military superiority at display.

 Recent statements by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alluded to the fact that China would not be allowed to create a ‘Maritime Empire in South China Sea’. While speaking at a public lecture at Nixon presidential library on July 23rd, he said that China has benefited a lot from the liberal order under the United States. He further said that there are massive imbalances in the relationship, and the quest of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for global hegemony is a critical issue at the international level. He said that China has failed to evolve towards freedom and democracy, and accused China of making the world sea waterways insecure for international maritime commerce. Lauding military efforts by US Department of Defence, he pronounced that US has undertaken initiatives as well as exercises so as to maintain freedom of navigation operations(FONOPs) in SCS and ensured that the allies and strategic partners are not threatened by Chinese aggressive posture.

Earlier David R Stillwel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs attended the virtual meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum on July 21stand he stressed on the fact that ASEAN role is critical for FONOPs, and there is a need for integrity and trust in the developing regional security architecture. There is a need for a meaningful and compliance based Code of Conduct on South China Sea, and guaranteed that US was committed to cooperation and collaboration with the allies and partners in the region. 

Earlier in mid-July (July 13) in one of the statements, the US State Department made it very clear that the Chinese claims of offshore resources in the South China Sea was unlawful, and not accepted by the US. The US State Department also clarified its position on the Chinese maritime claims and buttressed the fact that there is a need to preserve peace and stability, ensure freedom at seas under the provisions of UNCLOS, and protect the maritime trade and commerce. The clear cut highlight was that US would not accept any bullying by China in the region and urged to settle disputes through force or coercion.

Addressing the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling given in July 2016 and on the question of sovereignty in disputed waters, the US State Department confirmed its allegiance to the tribunals decision on the SCS and stated that China should abide by the legally binding principle. The US also reinforced the fact that no country can unlawfully assert maritime sovereignty and every country would have to abide by the UNCLOS. Earlier, the US had condemned the sinking of the Vietnam fishing vessel by China in South China Sea and extended full support to the ASEAN claimant countries in the South China Sea dispute.

The development with regard to the US and China ties specially on the issue of closing down of Chinese Consulate in Houston, and the reaction by China asking the US to close down its Chengdu consulate has further aggravated tensions in South China Sea. Washington has undertaken a number of exercises with friendly countries in the region which includes Japan and Australia in the Pacific/South China Sea, and with Indian navy in the Indian Ocean region. The purpose is to show that Quad is not a paper tiger and has the necessary capacities and capabilities to stop China from acting as a recalcitrant state.

Even lately the claimant countries of South China Sea dispute have come out openly against Chinese aggressive posture. Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia have presented a unified stance against maritime claims of China. Malaysia submitted its position paper in the UN related to extended Continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, has found support among many ASEAN nations. Interestingly, Brunei which was more of a silent spectator has also issued a statement related to this issue. It has clearly stated that the negotiations between the countries should be as per the guidelines of the UNCLOS and in compliance to the international law. However, it has made a statement, with a caveat, that specific issues should be addressed at bilateral level.

China has also been stressing on the fact that bilateral issues related to SCS should be address through bilateral dialogues and consultations. China has been stressing on the fact that the South China Sea dispute should be resolved at bilateral level rather than multilateral negotiations among the claimant countries. The strong approach taken by the US might help the ASEAN countries to undertake stronger approach, now when the US has been continuously undertaking freedom of navigation operations and has deployed two of its aircraft carriers in the vicinity of SCS.

The imaginary nine dash line related to South China Sea projected by China has come under intense international scrutiny. It need to be seen that Vietnam as chairperson of ASEAN would seek international intervention and seek Chinese compliance for safety and security in the contested waters. Vietnam’s role would be seen critical for the next four months and its leadership has been lauded on this critical issue but whether dialogue partners should also be willing to extend a helping hand.

Following the rebuttal by the US on the issue of South China Sea claims by China; India, Japan and Australia have made string of statements related to the issue and have stated full support to the freedom of navigation and the safety of the sea lanes of communication. These statements as well as joint exercises would act as confidence building among the ASEAN states and also helps in reining in China which is using the assertive posture backed by aggressive military moves in the region.

Prof. Pankaj Jha
Prof. Pankaj Jha
Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[at]