The tug-of-war between the United States and China continued during the third quarter of 2018. The two major powers continue their rivalry on both trade and security matters as smaller countries maneuvered in their relations with both.
The more obvious center of discussions has been on the trade disputes. The US imposed $250 billion worth of tarriffs and Chinese officials retailiated in kind, imposing the same amount of tarriffs on American products. As tensions escalated, US President Donald Trump threatened to impose fresh tariffs on a further $267 billion worth of Chinese products. If it pushes through, China says it would reciprocate. Aside from this, China warned its citizens against traveling to the US.
On the security front, North Korea’s denuclearization remained a priority for the United States. Amid controversy that North Korea is making more nuclear bomb fuel and doubts on its sincerity on denuclearization, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo headed to Pyongyang for his first visit after the Singapore Summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018. However, the two sides released contradicting statements about how the meeting went. Pompeo said that the old enemies had made progress on key issues but a North Korean official said that U.S. side came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization. Eager to provide evidence of the progress on the issue, Trump released a letter from Kim given to Pompeo from the said visit.
In the previous quarter, North Korea had painted a hopeful picture of peace and conflict resolution for the region. However, the succeeding months of negotiation and talks proved that the denuclearization will be much more complicated than what Trump hoped it would be. China continues to serve as a vital player and influencer to North Korea. Trump accused China of not helping in the denuclearization process due to US’s tougher stance on trade, which the Beijing officials refuted. Pompeo also singled out Russia and China during the ASEAN Regional Forum for violating the United Nations Security Council resolutions on trade sanctions against North Korea, and warned them against easing of sanctions until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons.
Additionally, Russian actions complicated US-China relations. In September, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese military for buying fighter jets and missile systems from Russia, in breach of a sweeping U.S. sanctions law punishing Moscow for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. China expressed its strong indignation and protest against the sanction but an anonymous US official said that the action was not targetted against Beijing but against Moscow for its malign activities.
The United States also passed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, a measure seen as targeting China. It strengthens the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews investment proposals to determine if they threaten national security. The Act also supports Taiwan’s military capacity and is seen to put China in the crosshairs of a host of new US Navy missiles and tactics.
In the South China Sea, two B52H Stratofortress bombers of the US flew in the vicinity in August and September. A US Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance plane with CNN and BBC crew also flew over the contested area, getting six warnings from the Chinese military. A Pentagon report was also released, claiming that China is likely training bombers for strikes against US and allied targets in the Pacific. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang rejected this as “presumptuous and irresponsible”, stating it was “in total disregard of facts” and that Beijing’s military development was defensive in nature and intended to safeguard its territorial integrity.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing Wen has also been proactive on strengthening defense ties with the US, further complicating US-China relations. Tsai visited Los Angeles and Houston in August, making a defiant statement against China. While the US denied any changes in its ‘one China’ policy after Tsai’s statement, it also recalled three of its chiefs of mission from Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Panama, countries that recently cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of recognizing China. The move comes as American officials have expressed growing unease over China’s rising influence in the region. During the third quarter, Taiwan was also active in promoting its role in the Indo-Pacific strategy and bolstering self-reliance, calling out China on its actions damaging the cross-Strait status quo.
US Lack of Commitment, Allies Step Up
US President Trump’s focus has been largely on the trade war with China and North Korea’s denuclearization. He decided to skip the the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, East Asia and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summits, once again fuelling doubts about US’ commitment to multilateralism in the region. Although Secretary of State Pompeo did his own tour in Southeast Asia and Vice President Mike Pence attended the Summit promoting the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, Trump’s absence at the Summit symbolizes the failure of the United States to follow through and assure allies on regional strategy.
On the other hand, US allies like Japan, Australia and United Kingdom stepped up and asserted their influence on different fronts affecting the region. For instance, like America, Australian Ambassador to the Philippines reminded parties in the South China Sea that the Code of Conduct should not prejudice the interests of third parties or the rights of all states under international law, including UNCLOS. There were reports of a patrol vessels deal between an Australian ship-builder (Austal) and the Philippine Navy. Australia also conducted one of the region’s largest air force exercises and naval exercises -- Exercise Pitch Black and Kakadu 2018.
In the South China Sea, the British Royal Navy angered China by sailing close to the Paracel islands. Japan also deployed three ships for two months and conducted naval drills in the disputed area in September. High-level Japanese naval officials, together with US counterparts, also visited the Philippine Navy’s headquarters to discuss maritime security, the global campaign against terrorism, and disaster relief and crisis response.
China Expanding Its Influence
In contrast to the snub received from the United States, ASEAN has been showered with attention from China. Aside from the negotiations for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, China has been actively pushing for cooperation in the third quarter of 2018. In July, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with Malaysian Prime Minister's special envoy to maintain the sound momentum of ties between their two countries. The Foreign Ministry of China also released a statement reassuring continous and mutually beneficial policy towards Malaysia. Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad in August, expressing his appreciation for the great importance Mahathir has attached to advancing bilateral ties and his support for the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative. State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected to visit Vietnam and the Philippines. A senior Vietnamese official also discussed bilateral ties with the Chinese President in Beijing.
China’s strategy seem to be working. The Philippines, which used to be a vocal critic of China for its actions in the South China Sea, is now the coordinator for China-ASEAN relations and is eyeing for more cooperation between China and ASEAN during its coordinatorship. Aside from agreeing on a single draft for the Code of Conduct Negotiating text, China and ASEAN navies proved they can work together as they staged emergency drills hosted by Singapore at its Changi naval base. China also proposed for ASEAN and China to hold regular joint military exercises in the South China Sea, and to commit to not hold joint military exercises in the South China Sea with any countries from outside the region without prior notice or agreement.
Major powers want to be friends with ASEAN
It is noticeable in the third quarter how major powers wanted their ties with ASEAN states strengthened. For instance, Japan has been seen to be countering China as it vied for influence in Cambodia during its general election in July. Japan also engaged with Singapore’s Navy through the RIMPAC Exercise and hosted a port call of RSS Tenacious at Yokosuka Naval Base from August 16 to August 22. The Republic of Singapore Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defence Forces engaged in ship visit exchanges and professional sharing on topics that included naval aviation. The RSN and the JMSDF also conducted passage exercise in the waters off Yokosuka.
Russia, which has been active in strengthening ties with Southeast Asia lately, has also pledged help for the Philippine Navy’s modernization terms of training, maintenance, and sustainment of future acquisition, particularly its submarine project. The rising power, India, engaged with ASEAN for the annual Delhi dialogue that focused on strengthening bilateral maritime cooperation.
As Singapore hosted the 51st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, ASEAN ministers were also able to meet with their counterparts from ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners – namely Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, and the United States.
During the third quarter, we witnessed the continuation of the US-China rivalry in both trade and security fronts. The trade war and North Korea appeared to be the priority issue for the Trump administration, as evident in the US President’s actions and statements. This caused concern on the part of the smaller states in the region that rely on the US for security and protection. Doubts about the US commitment opens up the opportunity for China to strengthen and further relations not only with the Southeast Asian countries, but even with US allies like Japan. It was also evident that China’s influence over the region worried US allies like Australia, Japan and United Kingdom, who stepped up their game through aid and security dialogues and exercises with each other, as in the case of Japan and Singapore. Aside from this, other major countries Canada, the European Union, India, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, and Russia continue their active engagement with Southeast Asia, either in bilateral and multilateral platforms.
The US-China rivalry has also been visible in the Philippines. Despite Trump’s absence in the ASEAN and APEC Summit, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver was sent out on a damage control mission. He visited the Philippines and met with Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana to reinforce the US’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and to its ally country.
On the other hand, the Philippines is the country coordinator for ASEAN-China Dialogue. Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano stated that the Philippines will play a constructive role in advancing ASEAN-China Relations. Philippines-China ties has also been said to be gearing for faster, stronger development. However, critics remain vigilant and watchful on developments in the relationship. The senate minority questioned the landing of Chinese military planes in Davao and broadcast of Chinese shows on government channel PTV. It was perhaps due to these vocal critics and opposition that Duterte attempted to stand up to China, by stating that China is wrong to police airspace over disputed sea. Philippine media said the President claimed that he had ‘quarreled’ with China.
The accidental grounding of the Philippine Navy’s BRP Gregorio Del Pilar in Half Moon Shoal is also worth mentioning as an important event during the third quarter of 2018. The Philippine Navy was able to retrieve the damaged frigate without physical help from the either the United States or China, despite some initial doubts about China taking unilateral action. This did not happen. This emphasizes the importance of countries being able to trust other parties’ behavior during incidents like this. It is also notable that China might not have behaved the same way if the US had become involved. The Philippine Navy, by declining the offers of assistance from China and US, was able to maintain a balanced stance toward both countries while ensuring protection of the country’s territory and assets. This only highlights the importance of modernizing the navy of a small, archipelagic country.