Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: A Time for Choosing? Not for Southeast Asia, Say VP and SECDEF

Sam Cohen
Tuesday, August 31, 2021, 11:04 AM

The United States attempts to focus on its military and diplomatic interests in Asia despite the ongoing debacle in Afghanistan; Japan and Taiwan continue to grow closer; India seeks to cement its position; and European nations send mixed signals.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks aboard the USS Tulsa (LCS 16) on Aug. 23 in Singapore, during her visit to Southeast Asia. (Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Richard Cho.)

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U.S. and Partners Conduct Indo-Pacific Exercises, U.S. Sends Administration Officials to Asia

Military Exercises

July and August saw a number of major U.S. military operations throughout the Indo-Pacific region. In July, on the fifth anniversary of the South China Sea arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s claims in the South China Sea, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Benfold conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands (Mandarin: Xīshā Qúndǎo; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Hoàng Sa). While the U.S. Navy maintains that these FONOPs are lawful under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China, Taiwan and Vietnam have all long claimed sovereignty over the islands. All three claimants require either permission or advance notification before foreign warships may enjoy the right to innocent passage, which is a violation of UNCLOS. While China claimed to have chased the U.S. warship out of the disputed area, the U.S. Navy responded that “[t]he PRC’s statement about this mission is false. USS Benfold conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters.” The U.S. Navy’s statement, which is more extensive than most press releases regarding FONOPs, went on to say that the “[People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)] statement is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”

Later, on July 28, the USS Benfold conducted a Taiwan Strait transit through international waters to “demonstrate[] the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Additionally, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the USS Kidd, and an Independence-variant littoral combat ship, the USS Tulsa, formed a surface action group (SAG) while on patrol in the South China Sea. This marked the first time a destroyer and littoral combat ship have joined to form a SAG, and the U.S. Navy argues that the “demonstrated adaptability of these deployed forces are clear indications of U.S. 7th Fleet’s continued support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Also in late July, the United States, Australia, South Korea and Japan conducted Talisman Saber 21, an exercise designed to show China and other competitors that “the U.S. and its Pacific allies could form a unified and capable naval force in a matter of days.”

In early August, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps launched a two-week exercise named Large Scale Exercise 2021, the largest of its kind since the Cold War, across 17 time zones, three global combatant commands and more than a dozen command staffs. According to James R. Holmes, the J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, Large Scale Exercise 2021 had two aims: first, to demonstrate that the “U.S. can can simultaneously address challenges in the Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean Sea, South China Sea and East China Sea—shutting down efforts to spread American military forces thin” and, second, “to demonstrate that U.S. naval and Marine forces can deny adversaries control of the seas, which is especially crucial in the Western Pacific, where the U.S. hopes to prevent China from occupying Taiwan or seizing the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands.”

And last week, the “Quad” countries—Australia, India, Japan and the United States—launched the four-day Malabar naval exercise off the coast of Guam. The U.S. Navy describes Malabar 2021 as an “annual maritime exercise that enhances planning, training, and employment of advanced warfare tactics between” all four navies, “which demonstrates the commitment between like-minded nations to upholding a rules-based maritime order in the Indo-Pacific.” As explained previously in Water Wars, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—or “Quad” for short—is a loose grouping of four nations increasingly aligned in their concerns over China’s assertiveness in the Asia Pacific region. Though the Quad is not a formal alliance, both the Biden and Trump administrations have sought to strengthen ties to these other countries as a counterbalance to China. The PRC-controlled newspaper Global Times has previously characterized the annual Malabar exercise as likely to “increase geopolitical risks in the region” and claims that the exercise is “becoming a pillar of the ‘Asian version of NATO’ that the US has been advocating,” which “would be a US-centered military alliance that serves US hegemonic ambitions with an eye on containing the rise of China.”

Also last week, the USS Kidd and the USCGC Munro, a U.S. Coast Guard national security cutter, conducted the eighth U.S. Taiwan Strait transit in 2021. The Chinese Ministry of Defense strongly condemned the transit and argued that it showed “that the US is the biggest disrupter of peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits, and the biggest security risk maker in the region.”

Diplomatic Initiatives

In late July, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines in the first trip to Southeast Asia by a top Biden administration official. In Singapore, Austin gave a well-received speech designed to “reassure allies and partners” that the Biden administration is focused on the region but is “not asking countries in the region to choose between the United States and China.” Instead, Austin focused his speech on “delivering public goods and strengthening partnerships—and addressed competition with China only secondarily.” Austin also emphasized that while the United States would defend its interests, it does not “seek confrontation” with China.

In Vietnam, Austin sought to capitalize on recent upward trends in U.S.-Vietnam relations, including the transfer of a decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard vessel to Vietnam. Finally, in Manila, Austin cemented “a concrete strategic success: Manila announced it would officially restore the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that makes it easier for American troops to operate on the archipelago.” This announcement represents an about-face for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and came in conjunction with reassurance from Secretary Austin that the defense agreement included a U.S. “commitment to protect the Philippines against any attacks — including those carried out in the West Philippine Sea—as part of the defense treaty.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had previously affirmed that position in his anniversary statement on the South China Sea arbitral ruling, in which he also “called on the PRC to abide by its obligations under international law, cease its provocative behavior, and take steps to reassure the international community that it is committed to the rules-based maritime order that respects the rights of all countries, big and small.”

From Aug. 2 to 6, Blinken met virtually with Southeast Asian officials for five consecutive days, including the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Blinken reaffirmed both “the United States’ commitment to ASEAN centrality” and “that the United States stands with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and international law, including UNCLOS.”

Vice President Harris Visits Southeast Asia

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris embarked on a trip to Southeast Asia on Aug. 24, with visits to Singapore and Vietnam, the first time a sitting U.S. vice president has visited Vietnam since the Vietnam War ended. In Singapore, Vice President Harris “sought to fortify the image of the United States as a credible ally by offering a sharp rebuke of China.” In a speech, Harris explicitly rebuked China for its efforts “to coerce, to intimidate, and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea[,]” which she said “continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.” However, as Defense Secretary Austin emphasized in his earlier speech in Singapore, Harris was explicit that U.S. “engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country, nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries.” While in Singapore, Harris also announced that the U.S. is offering to host the 2023 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman pointed to the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan:

What is happening in Afghanistan clearly reveals the US definition of “rules” and “order.” The U.S. can arbitrarily launch military intervention in a country without shouldering the responsibility for the suffering of the people in the relevant country; it gets to decide when it wants to come and leave without consulting the international community, not even its allies; it can wantonly smear, suppress, coerce and bully other countries for the sake of “America First” without paying any price. This is the kind of order that the U.S. wants. It always tries to defend its selfishness and bullying and hegemonic actions by citing “rules” and “order.” But how many people would actually buy it?

Indeed, much of Harris’s trip to Asia was overshadowed by the events unfolding in Afghanistan, as she “consistently faced questions about the withdrawal, the future of human rights in Afghanistan and the fate of those who had risked their lives to assist American troops in the 20-year war.”

Harris also visited the Singapore-based littoral combat ship USS Tulsa, during which she said the U.S. warship’s presence helped “guarantee peace and security, freedom of trade and commerce, freedom of navigation ... and open waterways, and the rules-based international order that has brought so much safety and prosperity to so many.” Still, Asia maritime strategy commentator and U.S. Navy Reserve officer Blake Herzinger noted that the littoral combat ships’ consistent mechanical problems and lack of combat survivability make them, at best, placeholders for future, more capable warships, now serving mostly to highlight the “stretched” U.S. Navy resources in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, Harris “offered to send aircraft carriers and a Coast Guard cutter to Vietnam, in addition to a donation of one million doses of Covid-19 vaccines.” However, her trip to Vietnam was delayed three hours by reports of “Havana syndrome” incidents in Hanoi. During this delay, the Chinese envoy to Vietnam met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh to pledge a donation of 2 million coronavirus vaccine doses, double the American donation. According to Chinese state media, the Vietnamese prime minister welcomed the donations and noted that “Việt Nam does not ally with one country to fight against another.”

Japan Increasingly Focused on Taiwan Security

Japan continues to take steps in response to the tense situation in the Taiwan Strait. Following its joint statement with the United States in April calling for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues,” Japan announced plans to station anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, as well as hundreds of troops, on Ishigaki Island, approximately 300 kilometers from Taiwan, by March 2023. This deployment would make Ishikagi the fourth missile-armed island in Japan’s southern Ryukyu island chain. As reported by Nikkei Asia, this announcement follows “unprecedented statements in recent months by [Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi] and other Japanese officials about the need to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, and publicly linking Taiwan’s security to Japan’s own.” In June, for instance, Japanese Deputy Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama argued that the world needed to “wake up” to China’s pressure campaign against Taiwan and “protect Taiwan as a democratic country.”

These announcements come as Japan plans to revise its Medium Term Defense Program earlier than scheduled “as it looks to boost spending to counter China’s growing assertiveness in surrounding waters and prepare for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait.” In a further indication of deepening ties between Japan and Taiwan, on Aug. 27, the ruling parties of the two nations held their first bilateral security talks, which “are a substitute for ministerial talks since Japan and Taiwan do not have diplomatic relations.” These talks come shortly after China launched a live-fire assault drill in the vicinity of Taiwan “as a direct response to the recent collusion and provocations made by the US and the Taiwan secessionists.” According to a spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command, this drill included warships, anti-submarine aircrafts, and fighter jets “to test integrated operational capability” in territory southwest and southeast of Taiwan. Japan has also been working with the United States to conduct war games and joint military exercises preparing for a conflict between China and Taiwan, and a recent survey of Americans shows that for the first time more than half of Americans (52 percent) are in favor of using U.S. troops to defend Taiwan were China to invade.

India-Driven Colombo Security Conclave Reemerges

The Colombo Security Conclave—a trilateral engagement of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives—emerged from a six-year hiatus in November 2020, and the group held its second meeting virtually on Aug. 4. The meeting, occurring just a month after the three nations’ navies participated in their first tabletop exercise, emphasized “four pillars” of cooperation: marine security, terrorism, human trafficking and cybersecurity. Bangladesh, Seychelles and Mauritius—which currently have observer status in the group—are expected to be granted full membership in the coming months. Observers believe the recent reinvigoration of the Colombo Security Conclave is a result of China’s increasingly assertive presence in the Indian Ocean. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, said that “[i]f China wasn’t active in the Indian Ocean and wasn’t sending warships inside India’s exclusive economic zone, India would not have been so proactive on [expanding the grouping].” New Delhi’s “Indian Ocean security activism” seeks to preserve for itself the role of “first responder” in any regional emergencies and keep China from winning too many friends in the region.

Europe Sends Mixed Messages in Indo-Pacific

Europe’s increasing engagement in the Asia Pacific region became muddled this month as a number of European engagements sent mixed messages about Europe’s intentions in Southeast Asia. First, the German frigate Bayern deployed to the South China Sea, “passing within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese coast.” This move was urged by a “more hawkish defence ministry—and heavily influenced by the United States, France and Britain,” but German Chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to add “a friendly stop-off in Shanghai ... to avoid ruffling Beijing’s feathers.” China “called Merkel’s bluff” and “​​den[ied] the request to dock in Shanghai on Tuesday until Germany offers a better explanation for the passage” in the South China Sea. Clarifying their position, however, could “convey the impression Germany has in effect asked China for permission, therefore strengthening rather than challenging Chinese claims over the South China Sea.” Francois Godement, a China analyst at the Institut Montaigne in Paris, said that China’s decision to demand clarification “perfectly embodies China’s new approach to the EU: choose between cooperation, competition and rivalry. You are with us or against us. And [it] also shows that when a partner oscillates, China increases the pressure.”

Meanwhile, the U.K. carrier strike group led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth “avoided joining the United States in directly challenging China’s 12-nautical-mile territorial claims in the disputed waters” as it sailed through the South China Sea—a different approach than the U.K. took in its naval deployment in the Black Sea challenging Russian claims over Crimea. Reportedly, China was “satisfied with the British carrier strike group’s low-profile naval presentation” during its transit. At the same time, the U.K. and Japan conducted joint drills off the coast of Okinawa, and the U.K. announced plans to permanently station two warships in Asia following the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s return home.


Afghanistan Evacuation Reverberates in Taiwan

Some commentators think the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan will make it harder for the U.S. to convince regional partners and allies in Asia to trust that “Uncle Sam is keeping guard for them.” Indeed, Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times emphasized that “Washington’s reassurances [to Taiwan] are astonishing against the backdrop of its abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan.” In The Diplomat, Brian Hioe surveys the view of Afghanistan’s collapse from Taiwan. He notes that the two main political camps in Taiwan, loosely associated with either the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party, and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), have split views on the meaning of the U.S. withdrawal for Taiwan. KMT members and associates tend to doubt the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security, with one hardliner even citing previous statements about the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to suggest that similar U.S. statements about Taiwan could not be trusted. Meanwhile, the DPP camp has “sought to reassure that Taiwan and Afghanistan are different, with [Taiwan President] Tsai[’s] administration broadly seeking to assure the public of the strength of Taiwan-U.S. ties.” In Taiwan, both camps “at least rhetorically call[] for self-reliance, though for the KMT this is phrased as self-reliance by the ROC, and the DPP has phrased this as self-reliance by Taiwan. Calls for self-reliance by the DPP and KMT likely mean very different things but may indicate something about current political trends in Taiwan.” John Bolton and Derik Zitelman further explain the “strategic, economic, and normative” reasons for the U.S. to remain more committed to Taiwan in another article in The Diplomat.

South China Sea Arbitral Ruling

At the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Lucio Pitlo provides an analysis of four steps that the Philippines could take to advance their South China Sea arbitral award at its fifth anniversary. Pitlo suggests that the Philippines (a) continue to publicly discuss the award; (b) “reference the award in conducting its sovereign actions in the South China Sea;” (c) continue to engage China both bilaterally and regionally within groups like ASEAN; and (d) take care not to make public statements that undermine the value of the award. Pitlo argues that these steps would “preserve the merits of the arbitration award to promote the country’s national interests in the South China Sea” and “reinforce the weight of international law in a longstanding geopolitical flashpoint.”
Finally, while China claims that significant progress has been made in developing a code of conduct for the South China Sea, numerous commentators argue that Beijing is merely trying to undermine the 2016 South China Sea arbitral ruling. The draft code of conduct would violate UNCLOS Article 56 regarding coastal states’ economic development rights by limiting joint development of energy resources in the South China Sea to partnerships between Chinese and Southeast Asian companies, excluding foreign firms. It would further allow a Chinese veto over military exercises on the high seas—a violation of Article 87—by limiting military exercises in the South China Sea to China and ASEAN countries, with any external country requiring prior permission of all 11 states. Thus, despite China’s assertions of progress, commentators in the Philippines and Singapore do not believe that a final agreement is likely to be reached before 2025.

Sam Cohen is a J.D. student at Harvard Law School. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University and served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other private or public entity.

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