The second quarter of 2018 has been peppered by events both constructive or damaging when it comes to the state of international relations. As the United States-China power competition continued to develop, more and more countries have become involved in what is considered by some to be a restructuring of the world order. Indeed, countries beyond the Indo-Pacific such as France and Britain are now joining calls for a rules-based order, and have joined the United States in conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The region has become a hotbed of political conflicts that mostly concern rising China and US actions which are obvious attempts to constrain the former.
SOUTH & EAST CHINA SEAS
The South China Sea has been abuzz with activities by territorial claimants and even outside powers. China continued to rattle cages when it installed electronic jammers, anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems in the big three islands under its control in the Spratlys, conducted takeoff and landing training with an H-6K bomber, and deployed drones in a missile drill. For its part, the US conducted its usual freedom of navigation operations, sailed close to China-occupied islands and disinvited China to the RIMPAC 2018 military exercises. High-level US officials are also using stronger language and even threats when reacting to China’s actions in the disputed area. Aside from France and Britain conducting freedom of navigation operations, Australia is also becoming more and more vocal when it comes to freedom of navigation rights and maintaining a rules-based order.
In the disputed area East China Sea, China again irked Japan by sending a oil drilling ship in late June. According to Foreign Minister Taro Kono, Japan filed a protest over this. The Chinese vessel is a semi-submersible type that makes it possible to operate in deeper waters. Japan said China [AB1] may be siphoning off resources from beneath the Japanese side of the line; it regards the continued exploration activities as going against the two countries’ 2008 agreement. The Japanese Defence Minister also expressed concern about China’s landing of a bomber in the South China Sea.
While talks on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea are in progress, Southeast Asian claimants caught between the US and China adjust their strategies according to their perceptions of China’s agressiveness and US involvement. Admittedly, the smaller states have little faith in the outcome and quick resolution of the disputes through a Code of Conduct. For instance, Vietnam which has been more vocal than others, has been constantly present at the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings, multilateral consultations with China, and other international summits to lobby for its interests. Vietnam and Malaysia have also aired their concerns about the possible joint development in the disputed area between the Philippines and China. In the Philippines, people at the grassroots continued to feel China’s power when the latter’s coastguard seized Philippine fishermen’s catch in exchange for noodles and cigarrettes. The domestic political opposition to the current administration has been lobbying to strengthen the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ capabilities to push back against China’s expansion. Despite the President’s pronouncements and cozying up to China for economic gain, the turn of events in the second quarter show that the country is inching closer to a strategy of balancing against China. Manila put up another territorial marker at Philippine Rise, conveyed certain “red lines” that other countries should not cross in the SCS, launched the construction of its frigates-purchase[AB3] from South Korea, met with high level US counterparts, hosted port visits and conducted annual Balikatan exercises not only with its ally the United States but also involving Japan and Australia.
Taiwan is another issue where growing US-China competition in the region may be observed. In April, China held a surprise live-fire drill in the Taiwan Strait which Taiwan dimissed as a mere intimidation and sabre-rattling of Beijing. Taiwan however responded with large-scale military drills in June. It is also unclear whether the drill also serves as a signal to the US, after its Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. In May, Taiwan suffered from a diplomatic setback as the Dominican Republic pledged ties with China. Taiwan accused China of using its economic power, a $3-billion aid pledge to persuade the Carribean nation to switch diplomatic ties. Beijing-based experts argue that it may also be some sort of message to the United States to not use Taiwan in countering China.
Ironically, North Korea somehow paints a better and more hopeful picture for regional security. After the inter-Korean summit between North Korean President Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in concluded with an agreement to end war and the Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula in April; US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un also held historic talks in Singapore to discuss diffusing tensions and nuclear disarmament. . After the summit, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefed South Koreans, Japanese and Chinese on the outcome of Trump's historic meeting with Kim. While critics argue that the agreement signed by the two sides is vague and lacks detail, many others saw this as a significant step as the two sides promised to talk more in the future and work on building a lasting peace regime. Additionally, the North Korean problem has been one of the issues that both US and China have cooperated on in the past and want to resolve. However, the critics are right to point out that denuclearization of North Korea still has a long way to go. China will have a tendency to side with and empower North Korea on the sidelines, adding fuel to its current competition with the United States
US ALLIES AND THE QUAD
US allies and members of the Indo-Pacific security diamond known as the Quad have also been adjusting their strategies during the second quarter. Aside from Australia’s, France’s and Britain’s freedom of navigation operations, port visits and Balikatan Exercises between the Philippines, US, Japan and Australia were held. The ninth Trilateral meetings between US, India and Japan also took place in April with all sides agreeing to remain engaged and strengthen cooperation for a free, open, prosperous, peaceful and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. In the same month, the US also resumed joint military exercises with South Korea, albeit toning it down and suspending it for the Trump-Kim Summit.
‘Malabar’ Exercises also started involving the navies of US, India and Japan. The war games are aimed at maritime interoperability training, emphasizing high-end war fighting skills, maritime superiority, and power projection. Interestingly, India chose to keep Australia out of the major multilateral exercise. Pundits view this as India’s means to appease China as it coincided with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China and meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
On the other hand, Indian PM Modi delivered the keynote speech in the annual inter-governmental security forum, Shangri-La Dialogue. His speech reassured the world of its principles to uphold a rules-based regime, sovereignty and the freedom of navigation and commerce. The forum was hailed for drawing attention to the “Indo-Pacific” and the emerging role of India as a strong strategic actor on the world stage, recognizing the challenges that plague the Asia-Pacific.
Indian relations with the two big powers remain enigmatic. Much like many smaller states, India regards China as a vital economic partner and yet China also poses a security risk because of their border disputes and the possible power contention as India itself continues to develop and establish stronger influence among Southeast Asian nations. On the other hand, India looks at the United States as a vital security and defense partner but the Trump administration’s trade war, tarriffs and sanctions may also take a toll on their relationship.
SMALLER STATES MANEUVER
As US-China power competition develops, smaller Southeast Asian countries are finding ways to diversify relations and avoid having to depend on either US and China. Vietnam and Malaysia, for instance, have both strengthened their ties with the another major power, Japan. Vietnamese Defense Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich conducted his first official visit in Japan in April which yielded to the expansion of Vietnam-Japan Strategic Partnership and signing of the Joint Vision Statement on Vietnam-Japan Defense Relations. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s first official visit as a returning Prime Minister also signalled that he was veering away from his predecessor’s conciliatory China policy, and is advocating a “Look East” approach – away from China and on to Japan.
The Philippines is also diversifying. South Korea has been an important partner for the country in boosting its defense capabilities. Philippine Department of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana visited South Korea and took part in the steel-cutting ceremony as South Korean shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries finally starts the construction of the Philippine Navy’s first missile-capable frigate. In June, Philippine President Duterte conducted a 3-day official visit and met with South Korean President Moon to seek "greater partnership" in defense and security, trade and investment, and political cooperation. The two countries signed four bilateral agreements on cooperation in science and technology, trade and economy, transportation and finance. Duterte also supported Moon’s “New Southern Policy” aiming to better connect South Korea with the ASEAN and expand the economic influence of South Korea.
The 32nd ASEAN Summit in April provided the smaller states a chance to discuss traditional and non-tradional security matters confronting the regional bloc. The Summit also provided an opportunity for the smaller Southeast Asia countries’ leaders to meet at the sidelines and conduct bilateral meetings. Vietnam PM Nguyen met with Singapore PM Lee and inked six agreements to strengthen ties on environmental protection, banking supervision, financial technology, renewable energy, liquefied natural gas and trade rules. The two countries also released a statement calling for a peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the SEA (UNCLOS) and for the implementation of a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Philippine President Duterte also met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Vietnam PM Nguyen, and Singaporean PM Lee.
The decline of US influence in the region, paired with the election of US President Trump and his protectionist trade policies, may be a setback for the US. It can be considered as a win for China which is actively wooing countries and increasing its influence through its economic prowess. While Trump is busy declaring trade war tariffs and sanctions, China comported itself as a champion of free trade and open markets. China continues to woo and cement relations not only in the economic front (ie, India, Philippines, Singapore and Laos), but also in security aspect through multilateral cooperation with the smaller Southeast Asian nations.
Smaller countries in the region may find both challenges and opportunities while they are stuck between the US-China geo-strategic competition. Even Singapore PM Lee noted that ASEAN is growing closer to the rising China and India. He also mentioned that the global strategic balance and regional balance are shifting, opening new opportunities for ASEAN member states to expand cooperation with China and India.
US decline in the face of an expansionist China has forced middle powers to take a more active role and maintain their presence felt in the international society. Smaller states with less capabilities are forced to balance, bandwagon or hedge. While no one country can take over the previous position of the US, other middle power countries are also opposed to the idea of China taking the reins and disturbing the old status quo of peace and development. In his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Indian PM Modi endorsed a vision of the Indo-Pacific where the major and middle powers both, with Southeast Asia at its centre, serve as anchors of stability and prosperity. This signals acknowledgment of the changes in the balance of power in the region, and that the United States alone cannot ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific nor the rules-based order.
The shift from a unipolar system with the US as the hegemon to a multi-polar world alongside great power rivalry is more than just theory advanced by international relations scholars. The events in the second quarter of 2018 show us that we are transitioning to such scenario, and the international system that we are accustomed to is slowly changing right before our eyes. Reaching out to other ASEAN states and middle powers, and diversification of economic and security relations, could help cushion the possible impacts of the US-China competition on small countries like the Philippines.