Iscann Senior Advisor Dzirhan Mahadzir on US politics in the South China Sea
‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’ is likely the outlook for the United States in regard to the South China Sea. While the changeover from the Trump Administration to the Biden Administration will revert the hardline diplomacy back to a more conventional diplomatic engagement between the United States and its allied nations, the national leaders of all the Association of Southeast Asean Nations (ASEAN) countries will remain the same.
The current common perception is that the difference between a Biden administration and a Trump administration will lead to better U.S. gains in the region. It would be a plausible prediction, except for the fact that, save Malaysia, every single current head of government of the remaining ASEAN countries was in office in 2016 when Barack Obama was the U.S. President. Thus, if Obama, ‘the great communicator’, and Donald Trump, ‘the dealmaker’, could not gain much traction in the region in countering China, it is hard to imagine that Biden, who lacks the charisma of Obama or the salesmanship bluster of Trump, will gain much headway. Particularly so when the region in question is known for being a place where major undertakings have to be endorsed and sealed between national leaders personally.
For most ASEAN countries, an official representing the U.S. President and meeting the ASEAN country’s head of government or speaking on major issues is not enough, it has to be the U.S. President himself. However, given the U.S. President’s commitments both domestically and internationally, scheduling direct meetings with an ASEAN head of government is most likely a significant challenge. Adding in this obstacle, it is difficult to foresee President Biden making better headway than his two predecessors.
Obstacles to navigate
It also has to be kept in mind that several factors already work against the United States. For one, China’s military installations in the South China Sea are there to stay. Short of a direct conflict resulting in the destruction or eviction of these installations, or China voluntarily leaving the installations, neither of which is going to happen, the best the United States can do is to ensure a regular military presence. This will deter China from being too aggressive when staking its claims, though as of now, the size of the U.S. Navy and the current availability of its fleet will make sustaining a noticeable presence a challenge.
Additionally, the U.S. cannot count on any sizable ASEAN participation in their efforts, because out of the ten ASEAN nations, only Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have sovereignty issues with China.
The remaining ASEAN nations have little at stake beyond a general sense of regional stability and security to be too actively involved in the territorial issue of the South China Sea to commit their naval forces to assist the United States with presence operations.
Moreover, even among ASEAN, as with any confederation of states, there is conflict and as a result no clear position is held. For instance, there are many people in the government, military and political circles in both Indonesia and Malaysia who will not welcome any assisting Singaporean military activity around their waters. However, it should also be noted that Singapore is too aware of the sensitivities of the region and not interested in doing so.
The South China Sea’s Business
Judging from the progress, or in fact lack thereof, of the South China Sea Code of Conduct between China and ASEAN, it is clear that ASEAN has very little sway with China. However, at the same time, the situation largely remains convenient for most ASEAN countries. ASEAN countries experience positive trade and economic interactions with China, while at the same time are able to rely on a U.S. military presence to counterbalance China and deter any heavy-handedness.
Furthermore, in a number of ASEAN countries, businesses that work predominantly with China exert their own influence on politicians. Many politicians who depend on their support often cannot afford to alienate such businesses or persons with domestic politics. As a result, while ASEAN nations are happy with the U.S. stance on the South China Sea and its continued military presence, they cannot be seen as directly supporting or condoning such, much less participating in any U.S. led presence operations.
The U.S. Supplies
The United States has pushed various Maritime Domain Awareness and defence capacity and capability building activities in the region, including the provision of Scan Eagles UAVs, ISR equipment and Excess Defence Article ships, in order to assist countries to better monitor and secure their maritime waters. However, these have their limitations. Providing this equipment does not necessarily translate into the equipment being used for the U.S.’ intended purpose. And while, fundamentally, regional militaries are more than happy to accept U.S. military aid and support, they still have to follow the decisions and directives of their governments, despite what their inclinations may be.
As of now, there is a tendency for U.S. military officials to place too much credence on what their respective counterparts tell them, not realising that in the end, their military counterparts have little influence or are even listened to by their political leaders.
Given the combination of these factors, it is very difficult to see a Biden administration being able to affect much change on the South China Sea situation. The U.S. will more or less have to act in accordance with its external partners, such as Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and to a lesser extent India, rather than count on any support from within the region itself.
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 The Paracel Islands are heavily disputed between Vietnam, China and Taiwan. Additionally, the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are a source of conflict between China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Brunei also claims a part of the Spratly Islands but has not taken steps to assert sovereignty. China also claims that Indonesia’s Natuna Islands are geographically separate from the Spratly Islands. Chinese Coast Guard ships frequently enter the Exclusive Economic Zone of Malaysia close to the state of Sarawak.
 Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia