It was “not very reassuring,” Jeffrey Ordaniel told VnExpress, referring to the address by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore a week ago.
Ordaniel, Research Fellow with the Pacific Forum, felt that while Mattis outlined what America wants to see in the so-called Indo-Pacific Region, he failed to clearly articulate how Washington could help smaller countries resist pressure and coercion from China.
He could not even clearly commit to defend the Philippines, a mutual defense-treaty ally, in the South China Sea, Ordaniel noted.
The South China Morning Post quoted the Defense Secretary as saying that the “the U.S. will continue to pursue a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China, cooperating when possible and competing vigorously where we must … of course we recognize any sustainable Indo-Pacific order has a role for China.”
But the U.S. bark seems to lack bite, analysts feel.
On May 23, the U.S. disinvited China from participating in the large-scale naval exercise known as Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, planned to take place from June 27 to August 2, 2018. The Pentagon cited China’s rapid military buildup on disputed islands in the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, as the reason for withdrawing the invitation, the New York Times reported.
“Mattis for this year repeated the warning, insisting that there would be consequences to China’s actions. What are those consequences? From what I have seen the RIMPAC dis-invitation was the only consequence, a very disproportionate response when compared to what China has been doing since 2013,” said Ordaniel.
He said the most significant takeaway from this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, as far as the South China Sea issue was concerned, was the obvious disconnect between Washington’s repeated warnings to China and Beijing’s response, which is to just ignore them and presenting more fait accompli actions.
Many nations consider disputes in the South China Sea the most important geopolitical and traditional security concern in Southeast Asia, and they want stronger, more resolute U.S. leadership on this issue. However, Mattis has failed to deliver this.
To deter China from more assertive actions in the South China Sea, the U.S. should demonstrate stronger leadership and resolve, Ordaniel feels.
For instance, it should spearhead a multilateral freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) or freedom of navigation patrols with allies and partners, he said.
“Unilateral FONOPs cannot be the be-all and end-all of American strategy in the South China Sea,” Ordaniel said.
Moreover, the U.S. should also declare that Article 5 of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, at the very least, applies to Philippine vessels, troops and aircraft in the South China Sea.
Such clear commitments would dramatically increase the deterrent value of the alliance. Finally, the U.S. should loosen some of its restrictions and export more maritime hardware to Vietnam, Ordaniel said.
Robert Ross, Professor of Political Science at Boston College and Associate, John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University, highlighted the statement by China’s Lieutenant-General He Lei, deputy president at the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science, at Shangri-La.
“His message to the region is that China will not be constrained by the U.S.”, said Ross.
On June 2, He Lei lashed out at “irresponsible comments” on Beijing’s military build-up in the South China Sea after the U.S. defense chief accused China of intimidation and coercion in the disputed waters. He defended China’s actions saying they were being taken “for the purpose of avoiding being invaded by others. As long as it is on your own territory you can deploy the army and you can deploy weapons.”
Professor Ross also expressed his concern about the U.S.’s ability to confront China as Beijing increases its presence and influence in the South China Sea.
“I don’t see that the U.S. today can constrain China’s behavior. China’s naval power is continuing to grow in the South China Sea, this is why the US is focusing on co-operation with India, a new ally, new partner,” Ross said.
However, Bill Bray, a retired United States Navy captain, disagreed with such analyses.
He saw the disinvitation as “a first step in a more assertive U.S. approach” to China’s actions in the South China Sea. Bray felt Mattis’s Shangri-La speech was “strong enough.”
He said that this year, the focus of the U.S. is one of grand strategic competition between the U.S. and China, not surprising since “great power competition” is the overriding theme in the Trump administration’s National Security and National Defense Strategies, both released in late 2017.
“I believe this is the way the Trump Administration will approach the SCS dispute now,” said Bray.
Ordaniel reserved high praise for Vietnam’s consistent stance for dispute resolution based on law.
He said Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich‘s speech at Shangri-La was resolute and clear in articulating Vietnam’s principled position of resolving conflicts peacefully in accordance with international law.
“I think of all the claimants in the South China Sea, Vietnam has been the most consistent in advocating for a rules-based resolution of disputes, whatever the mechanism – bilateral, multilateral or third-party arbitration.
“If you examine Vietnamese participants’ statements since the 2002 Shangri-La Dialogue, you would find this consistency remarkable. Hanoi deserves credit for being a strong, consistent advocate of a rules-based regional order,” said Ordaniel.
Bray found it “most striking” that Minister Lich expressed Vietnam’s support for outside powers (read the U.S.) to have an important role in solving complex regional security issues.
Lich had said that “to resolve complex security issues, each nation must decide its own destiny but at the same time, they also need fair-minded support from the international community, particularly major countries…”
This is consistent with Vietnam’s improving relationship with the U.S. and was reinforced by the Defense Minister’s meeting with Secretary Mattis on the sidelines of the meeting in Singapore, Bray said.
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, with the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, noted that Lich had underscored the importance of establishing internationally-compliant security architectures, building mutual trust among parties, including major powers. He had also called for all parties to act responsibly and for the expansion and diversification of regional security and economic cooperation mechanisms.
Said Pitlo III: “In a way, this lends support to Mattis’s earlier remarks on having all countries take part in building a shared future for the region.”
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