As Trump and China trade hostilities, Southeast Asia is thrust onto the front line

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    The next day, David R. Stilwell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, derided China’s “gangster tactics” in the maritime region, saying Beijing drives out competition and coerces Southeast Asian claimant states on oil and gas rights and joint development. Stilwell, speaking via video at a conference in Washington, did not rule out sanctions again Chinese officials and energy companies.

    In his remarks, Pompeo specifically mentioned waters around the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Indonesia, saying Washington rejects China’s claims to them.

    Halfway around the world, these countries and by extension the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations are caught in the middle of an escalating dispute that also encompasses the status of Hong Kong, the covid-19 pandemic, a trade war, and tit-for-tat travel restrictions on U.S. and Chinese officials and politicians.

    “I think it’s fair to say we’re on the front line,” said Evan A. Laksmana, a senior researcher and military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. “If China feels it needs to provide some retribution of some kind, if we are seen as escalating, Southeast Asia would be looked at first.”

    Laksmana said that Southeast Asian nations, in particular claimants to islands in the South China Sea, were not trying to escalate the situation, and with good reason: China is among the largest foreign direct investors in the region and a key source of medical equipment and drugs to combat the coronavirus.

    It might be a different story with the Trump administration, which has thrown fuel on the fire as its relations with Beijing plumb new depths. The U.S. comments this week about the South China Sea — Pompeo on Wednesday acknowledged the change in U.S. policy — coincided with the fourth anniversary of a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines that rejected Chinese maritime claims around the Spratly Islands and neighboring reefs and shoals.

    The 2016 ruling also said China had “no historical rights” in the South China Sea based on the contentious nine-dash line on Chinese maps, which carves out around 90 percent of the maritime region as its own.

    The arbitration panel’s proceedings stemmed from a complaint by the Philippines under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which both China and the Philippines are party. Beijing, however, did not participate in the proceedings and rejected the ruling.

    The South China Sea holds vital shipping lanes for global trade, notably oil supplies destined for U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, as well as China and Taiwan. Beijing’s island-building and military buildup in the region have alarmed its neighbors, who fear the consequences if China were to control the waterway, especially in the event of armed conflict.

    Analysts noted, though, that Pompeo’s statement referred only to maritime territory, rather than islands, shoals and other land masses, as the U.S. position has been not to become involved or take sides in those disputes.

    “After the 2016 award, the U.S. put out a statement asking all parties to abide by the ruling,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow and naval analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

    “The new thing now is that the U.S. is more assertive in pushing things out in a more aggressive manner” regarding maritime disputes and the nine-dash line, he said. “It’s quite an elaborately written statement and can probably be seen as a more elaborate policy exposition.”

    Gregory B. Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the new U.S. policy explicitly declared it illegal for China to engage in fishing, resource exploration or other economic activities in those areas or to interfere with its neighbors’ rights to do so.

    “They went to great lengths to avoid the appearance that this is about the territorial disputes,” he said.

    China has been involved in numerous naval skirmishes, standoffs and other incidents with its Southeast Asian neighbors over the years, most recently with Indonesia and Malaysia.

    In December, Indonesia spotted commercial Chinese fishing boats — protected by the formidable China Coast Guard — operating in its exclusive economic zone north of its Natuna Islands, prompting a diplomatic protest to Beijing.

    The sides had three significant skirmishes in 2016, including one in which a China Coast Guard vessel rammed an Indonesian government boat to obtain the release of a confiscated Chinese fishing trawler.

    Jakarta says it is not a claimant in the territorial disagreements in the South China Sea, but it was sucked into the dispute after Beijing asserted, after a 2016 naval skirmish, that its nine-dash-line included “traditional fishing grounds” within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

    In April and May, a Chinese survey and research ship and a Malaysian exploration vessel were involved in a standoff within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone off the east coast of Borneo island.

    These incidents, and many more like them — some violent — have raised questions about the readiness of Southeast Asian claimant states in the South China Sea for a military confrontation.

    Indonesia, for example, rushed additional fighter planes and navy ships to the Natuna Islands after the incursions by Chinese fishing boats and the China Coast Guard in December.

    “I think probably Singapore and Vietnam would be high on my list to upgrade their capabilities and hardware,” Laksmana said, adding that Indonesia’s military development “does not match what’s going on on the high seas.”

    Malaysia released a defense white paper last month, but Koh said the coronavirus pandemic will make it hard for the country, as well as Indonesia, to find money for new or upgraded weaponry.

    “These countries will likely just maintain what they have,” he said.

    Whatever the Trump administration does with its new policy, it is not considered likely to rush to act soon or unilaterally.

    “I’m not sure this is going to happen overnight,” Poling said. “They need to test this, but if over time the U.S. takes action to address this issue, it will strengthen spines in the region.”

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