Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne during a joint press conference in Washington on July 29 with her U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo bluntly remarked that although the two countries often hold common positions because they share fundamental values, yet “we don’t agree on everything”.

She not only refrained from echoing Pompeo’s bellicose rhetoric against China regarding its behaviour in the South China Sea, but, was also determined not to be seen as a hapless pawn in America’s increasingly tense stand-off with China.

Payne was perhaps trying to placate Australia’s regional neighbours in Southeast Asia who are increasingly showing unease about the confrontational attitude of both the U.S. and China in the region. Australia appears to be resisting a push from the United States to conduct more assertive freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea (SCS). Payne was in Washington accompanied by Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, for the annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial talks known as ‘AUSMIN’.

While many members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam – have issues with China over sovereignty in the South China Sea, China is also their major trading partner and they do not want to disrupt these trading relationships which are crucial to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne at a joint press conference in Washington on July 29 with her U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo (Source: The Conversation)

As Collin Koh a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore points out, even Vietnam – that has often clashed with Chinese naval vessels in SCS – when responding to Pompeo’s statements has avoided language that calls out China.

“Certain ASEAN governments do not want to imperil their bilateral ties with Beijing, especially given close economic linkages,” argues Koh. “Some ASEAN governments might also see Mr Pompeo’s statement as part of the intensifying U.S.-China rivalry — regardless of whether the statement is framed in legal terms or from the standpoint of the rules-based order — and would desire no part in it.”

He also added in a commentary published in Singapore’s Today newspaper,  that any sanctions the U.S. may impose on China could have a flow on effect on infrastructure projects in the region under the belt and road initiative (BRI).

Philippines has been at the centre of the SCS dispute because of a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal convened under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled in Philippines’ favour over its disputes with China. Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr marked the fourth anniversary of the award on July 12 by emphasising the unlawfulness of certain Chinese activities, and the need for compliance.

Yet, the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has set aside this tribunal ruling and embarked on developing a close economic relations with China. In his 5th State of the Nation address, Duterte said that China is already in possession of the disputed sea and he cannot do anything about it.

“We have to go to war, and I cannot afford it, maybe other presidents can but I cannot,” he said, adding that though there are reports of the U.S. wanting to move back to the former U.S. military base in Subic Bay, he cannot allow it. “(If) you put bases here, this will ensure if war breaks out… the extinction of the Filipino race,” Duterte warned.

Gilang Kembara, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta writing in the Jakarta Post argues that China has increased its aggressive behaviour in the SCS because the COVID-19 crisis has put on hold negotiations between ASEAN and China for a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the SCS and China is positioning itself to negotiate from a  point of strength.  “As ASEAN member states have their hands full in dealing with the pandemic, Beijing wants to raise its leverage in the negotiation when it restarts,” he notes.

Kembara has listed a number of recent incidents where China has behaved aggressively in ASEAN waters such as in West Capella when Malaysia started an oil and gas survey within the Malaysia-Vietnam joint defined area. Several China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels have been sent to trail and harass the drillship and its supply vessels. Malaysia has deployed its Navy while Vietnam also sent some of its maritime militia. 

Beijing has simultaneously initiated a showdown with Malaysia at the Luconia Shoals, where CCG vessels maintain a near-constant presence off the coast of Sarawak. U.S. has also maintained a month-long patrol in the area through its navy and air force sent to the region. CCG vessels have also infringed Indonesia exclusive economic zone demarcated under UNCLOS. in December and January.

“There seems to be no indication that the situation in the South China Sea will simmer down anytime soon. With the U.S. set to hold an election in November, President Donald Trump cannot afford to back down against China’s assertive behaviour within the South China Sea,” argues Kembara. “With the CoC negotiation stagnating in these pressing times, there will be a lot clutter to clean up before any agreement could be pushed forward between the South China Sea littoral states.”

Voice of Vietnam (VOV) reported that the Vietnamese government has expressed displeasure at China’s actions in the SCS (what Vietnam calls the ‘East Sea’) in the past three months. “China has repeatedly acted in ways that threaten peace and stability in the region,” says VOV. It added that the Vietnam government believes in promoting peace, stability and cooperation in the East Sea and they would like to settle disputes through dialogue respecting the 1982 UNCLOS.

“Countries inside and outside the region must respect the rule of law and join efforts to build a region of peace, stability, and development,” said Vietnam government mouthpiece VOV.

“China has not tried to export revolution since the end of Maoism. It does not seek to change other countries in its own image,” says Professor Walter Woon, former Singapore ambassador to Germany and the European Union. “America does this constantly, preaching the superiority of its values; a claim that rings hollow given the poisonous partisanship of American politics.”

In an article in Today, he pointed out that recently National University of Singapore’s Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute has asked over 1,300 ASEAN nationals in both the public and private sector which of the two rivals ASEAN should align itself with if forced to choose between China and America. “A majority of the respondents in seven out of 10 ASEAN countries picked China,” he states.

Meanwhile, like Australia, South Korea is facing a dilemma of having to choose between a security ally and the major trading partner. The Korean news agency Yonhap reported quoting Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha that they are seeking a coherent strategy to stay clear of geo-political tension between the U.S. and China.

“Seoul is trying to map out a long-term strategy to navigate the increasingly tricky regional landscape, as it seeks to maintain good relations with both Washington, its security ally, and Beijing, its major trading partner,” said Yonhap, adding that the Foreign Ministry has recently decided to turn its temporary diplomatic strategy task force into a permanent division and assign several more personnel to the division.