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What China’s Asian Maritime Rivals Expect from an Emboldened, Supportive US

In this photo provided by U.S. Navy, the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76, front) and USS Nimitz (CVN 68, rear) Carrier Strike Groups sail together in formation, in the South China Sea, July 6, 2020.
In this photo provided by U.S. Navy, the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76, front) and USS Nimitz (CVN 68, rear) Carrier Strike Groups sail together in formation, in the South China Sea, July 6, 2020.

Asian countries who feel pinched by China over competing maritime claims expect the U.S. government to step up aid following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s words of support this week, but only in severe cases and without risking conflict, scholars in the region believe.

In a statement issued Monday, Pompeo promised to protect the maritime rights of the smaller Asian countries in keeping with international law. China vies for maritime sovereignty with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all of which have weaker militaries. At stake is the shared 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, which is flush with fish and energy reserves.

Claimant governments tentatively welcome Pompeo’s offer but want to know what, specifically, Washington will do before feeling more confident, analysts say.

“It will really make Southeast Asia sit up and take notice if there are real concrete actions that follow soon after the recent Pompeo statement, because otherwise it will still remain a statement and people will continue guessing what is going to come after the statement,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Pompeo told reporters in Washington on Wednesday he would consider protecting third countries against China through legal means and multilateral bodies including the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc. Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines are among the bloc members.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell hinted at a conference Tuesday there is “room to sanction Chinese officials and state-owned enterprises that engage in illegal activities,” Olli Pekka Suorsa, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, wrote in a commentary emailed to reporters on Thursday.

Pompeo said Washington’s superpower rival Beijing lacks rights to claim 90% of the waterway, where it has angered neighboring countries over the past decade by landfilling tiny islets for military, economic and scientific use.

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo, said U.S. officials will probably respond just to major upsets involving China but do that without sparking a conflict.

The U.S. government would ignore localized fishing disputes and altercations over placement of oil rigs, he said. American officials might consider responding instead to Chinese ship movement in waters claimed by other countries. Chinese survey vessels have this year tested waters claimed by Malaysia and Vietnam.

“It’s a very difficult line to walk between putting significant pressure back on the Chinese without it spiraling into a kinetic conflict,” Nagy said.

China cites historical records to explain its maritime claims. On Thursday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman defended China’s compliance with international law and questioned whether the U.S. side had been as diligent.

Washington is expected to enlist other powers in any action against China on behalf of a third country. A Japan-Australia-U.S. statement on July 7 condemned Chinese actions in Asia after Australia, Japan and India made their own similar comments. India’s external affairs ministry said Thursday the sea should stay open to international navigation and overflight.

“I see that (it’s) stepping up and concentrating all levers of pressure against China and it’s going to include a multilateral pushback against China’s claims,” Nagy said.

Officials from Southeast Asian states were quiet after the Pompeo comments.

Vietnam, normally the most outspoken claimant, probably welcomes Pompeo’s plan but hopes not to be singled out as a protected country, said Nguyen Thanh Trung, director of the Center for International Studies director at University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam needs China as a trading partner and the two Communist neighbors still try to get along despite decades of flare-ups in the South China Sea.

“I think that they hope the U.S. can confront China unilaterally or with some other allies,” Nguyen said. “Vietnam should not be deeply involved in any initiatives.”