U.S. Partnership Options in the South China Sea

Brett Wessley is an officer in the U.S. Navy, currently assigned to U.S. Pacific Command.  The contents of this paper reflect his own personal views and are not necessarily endorsed by U.S. Pacific Command, Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.  Connect with him on Twitter @Brett_Wessley.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS).

Date Originally Written:  January 21, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 27, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a U.S. Naval Officer serving on staff duty at U.S. Pacific Command.  The article is written from the point of view of U.S. policymakers weighing options in Southeast Asia and the SCS.

Background:  Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to table the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration June 2016 ruling was a strategic setback for the U.S.[1].  While the Hague’s ruling legally invalidated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) “Nine Dash Line” under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), Duterte’s increased ties to the PRC and deteriorating relationship with the U.S. have led to a potential “fait accompli” in the SCS.  Instead of pressing their claims through international engagement, the Philippines has decided to engage the PRC solely through bilateral forums, and the status quo of the PRC occupying and building islands in the SCS will continue unopposed by the principal aggrieved party.

Significance:  The SCS represents a strategic point of friction between the PRC and the international community, particularly with the U.S.  While territorial disputes in the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan involve major military powers and treaty alliances with the U.S., the international environment in the SCS is more permissive to incremental PRC actions to acquire territory (aka “salami slicing”)[2].  The Philippines is the only regional treaty ally to the U.S., and Duterte’s sidelining of the Hague’s ruling imperils regional neighbors like Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia – all of whom have territorial disputes with the PRC’s Nine Dash Line.  The danger for the U.S. is that the PRC may militarize its expansive holdings in the SCS and expand the People’s Liberation Army’s defensive perimeter to the south, thus reinforcing the PRC’s counter-intervention capabilities.

Option #1:  The U.S. repairs relations with Duterte and restore the alliance with the Philippines.

Risk:  Duterte has pushed numerous controversial policies within the Philippines during his short tenure as President, namely the extrajudicial killings of drug-related criminals[3].  Duterte’s rhetoric has been alienating and crude, particularly when involving the U.S. and the previous Obama Administration.  Duterte’s strong feelings about the U.S. are deeply rooted within his personal life and Philippine history, and this bias may be insurmountable through diplomacy.  Furthermore, the PRC has offered Duterte significant economic development and loans, all of which were aimed at dissuading him from aggressively pursuing the Hague’s ruling and improving relations with the U.S.

Even if the U.S. was successful in repairing the relationship with Duterte and the Philippines, doing so may create a perception that the U.S. will accept undermining the rule of law in return for strategic concessions.  This messaging is contrary to the U.S.’ position on the SCS and territorial disputes, in addition to open governance and a rules-based international system.  The greatest risk is that in persuading Duterte to move forward with the Philippine’s legal case against the PRC, the U.S. may be forced to abandon the international principles driving its foreign policy.

Gain:  Improved relations with Duterte and the Philippines would restore the U.S.’ foothold in the SCS for promoting a rules-based international system.  The Philippines is a treaty ally and historical partner of the U.S., and it is unlikely that a closer relationship could be formed with other SCS nations.  Additionally, the Philippines successful legal case against the PRC provides legitimacy to its territorial claims – namely against the illegal PRC seizures of several reefs and fishing grounds in the SCS[4].  Although the weakness of the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard has prevented aggressive patrols of its territorial waters, partnership with the U.S. would provide avenues for equipment and training, in addition to opportunities for intelligence sharing and improved maritime domain awareness.

Option #2:  The U.S. pivots diplomatic and military engagement to Vietnam in the SCS.

Risk:  Although the PRC more recently fought Vietnam during the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, the bitter history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War will complicate relations between the U.S. and Vietnam.  The nominally communist government of Vietnam, and its rejection of democratic governance in favor of one party rule, will likely be domestically unpopular in the U.S. compared to partnership with the Philippines.  Additionally, Vietnam’s historical partnership with Russia may impede meaningful intelligence sharing with the U.S.

Gain:  When compared to the other SCS claimants competing with the PRC, Vietnam’s investment in maritime defensive capabilities is outstanding.  The legacy of Soviet sea-denial strategies has led to Vietnamese investment in coastal defense cruise missiles, integrated air defense systems, submarines, and patrol craft to defend its SCS territories.  Vietnam has militarized its holdings in the SCS in ways the Philippines and other claimants have been unable or unwilling to do. Vietnam’s geography near the major PRC naval bases on Hainan Island, and its holdings throughout the Spratley Islands, would put PRC military assets at asymmetric risk in any regional conflict [5].

If the U.S. was able to gain basing rights from Vietnam, its ability to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations would be assisted by a Vietnamese Navy and Coast Guard capable of maintaining a presence in contested waters.  As a military partner to the U.S., the deterrent value of Vietnamese military capabilities in the SCS would be a credible improvement over the status quo.  U.S. pursuit of imposing cost on aggressive PRC expansion in the SCS would be uniquely complimented by Vietnamese military capabilities.

Other Comments:  It is important that the U.S. maintains a regional ally in the SCS with territorial holdings.  As an outside power, the U.S.’ goal of maintaining freedom of navigation in international waters can only be supported by partnership with a legitimate claimant.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Ben Blanchard and Reuters, “Duterte says U.S. has lost, aligns Philippines with China,” CNN Philippines, October 21, 2017.  http://cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/10/20/duterte-cuts-us-ties-aligns-with-china.html

[2]  Robert Haddick, “America Has No Answer to China’s Salami-Slicing,” War on the Rocks, February 06, 2014.  https://warontherocks.com/2014/02/america-has-no-answer-to-chinas-salami-slicing/

[3]  James Hookway, “Rodrigo Duterte Ushers Manila Into a New Era,” The Wallstreet Journal, January 16, 2017.  https://www.wsj.com/articles/outsider-ushers-manila-into-new-era-1484560813

[4]  Jaime Laude, “China takes Philippine atoll,” The Philippine Star, March 02, 2016.  http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2016/03/02/1558682/china-takes-philippine-atoll

[5]  Shang-su Wu, “The Development of Vietnam’s Sea-Denial Strategy,” The Naval War College Review, Winter 2017. https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/8756f6bf-78d0-4955-b1c6-ce8ee678f5c0/The-Development-of-Vietnams-Sea-Denial-Strategy.aspx

Allies & Partners Brett Wessley China (People's Republic of China) Option Papers Philippines South China Sea United States Vietnam