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The End of American ‘Neutrality’ in the South China Sea

Aug 16, 2020

Since coming to power, the US President Donald Trump has upended the international order in ways both disruptive and unpredictable. His perfunctory abandonment of the Iranian Nuclear Deal and vital arms control agreements such as the Open Skies Arms Control Treaty with Russia are among the most potent expressions of “America alone” unilateralism in recent memory. 

Arguably, the Trump administration’s most geopolitically consequential policy change is the abandonment of its decades-long claim (or some would say pretense) to “neutrality” on the increasingly contentious South China Sea disputes. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent policy statement on the maritime spats in the region is less relevant for its categorical rejection of much of China’s maritime in adjacent waters, since this is nothing new. 

What is of greater significance is America’s de facto endorsement of claims of China’s rivals – most especially the Philippines – a decision which has major geopolitical implications. This shift is particularly important in light of Washington’s recent pledge to come to Manila’s assistance in an event of conflict in the South China Sea under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.  

The Impossible Trinity 

Much of the media coverage regarding Pompeo’s latest policy statement  focused on its explicit rejection of bulk of China’s claims in the South China Sea as ‘unlawful’. Headlines suggested that this was a major shift in American foreign policy, when in fact such a shift can be dated to as early as 2014, when the US State Department released “Limits in the Seas” a detailed policy paper which questioned the validity of ‘China’s nine-dash’ line and ‘historic rights’ claim. 

Following the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague, which rejected a number of China’s maritime claims as inconsistent with prevailing international law, the Obama administration was quick to emphasize that the ruling was final and binding. Specifically, President Barack Obama called on China "as a signatory to UNCLOS, to abide by its obligations under that treaty, which the United States views as critical to maintaining the rules-based international order". 

Beginning from the Nixon administration in the 1970s, the US has tried to maintain a position of ‘impossible trinity’ in the South China Sea: that is, claiming ‘neutrality’ on the disputes, pursuing strategic cooperation with China, and maintaining alliance obligations to rivals claimants, namely the Philippines. But this proved an increasingly untenable position over the decades. 

Even at the position’s inception, the US had demonstrated its abandonment of its alliance obligations to the Philippines, setting the stage for growing doubts over America’s reliability over the years. Back in the 1970s, the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger explicitly ruled out any substantial support for Philippine claims in the South China Sea, since the Nixon administration does “not see [any] legal basis…for supporting the [Philippine] claim to the Spratlys…over that of other claimants.” 

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration refused to intervene on Manila’s behalf following China’s occupation of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef. As for the Obama administration, it ruled out military intervention during the naval standoff between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal. Thus, successive US administrations tried to maintain strong relations with China and claim ‘neutrality’ on the South China Sea disputes by effectively abandoning the Philippines. 

The upshot was growing doubts over America’s reliability as an ally, even if the superpower enjoys high favorability ratings. Surveys have shown that that at least half of Filipinos are unsure about whether the country’s alliance with the US has been “beneficial to the Philippines”, while a large plurality (47 percent) has pushed for stronger ties with Russia and China. Meanwhile, a growing number of Filipinos, from a plurality of 43 percent in 2015 to a majority 67 percent in 2017, welcomed stronger economic relations with China. 

Like a prodigal son, the US is favored among Filipinos, but is seen as unreliable ally, setting the stage for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “independent” foreign policy away from Washington and towards Beijing. Outraged by American unreliability, even Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a former defense attaché in Washington, called for a thorough review (if not abrogation) of the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty. “Is it still relevant to our security? Perhaps not,” complained Duterte’s top defense official last year, arguing that it was time to discuss whether the two allies should “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it [altogether].” 

The End of Neutrality 

Washington has taken notice of Filipinos’ growing anxieties over the utility of the century-old alliance. In a major departure from its predecessors, the Trump administration moved in the opposite direct by abandoning strategic engagement with China and, crucially, any pretense to neutrality on the maritime disputes. In exchange, it doubled down on its commitments to the Philippines. 

Despite well-publicized tensions between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the West, facts on the ground suggest deepening security cooperation between the two allies. Not only does the Filipino president enjoy good personal rapport with Trump, but the quality and quantity of military ties has actually improved in recent years. 

For instance, the Trump administration actually doubled its Foreign Military Financing  assistance package to the Philippines, with the two allies conducting close to three hundred joint military activities last year, the highest number among the US Indo-Pacific Command’s partners. Washington has also dramatically ramped up its Freedom of Navigation Operations (in the South China Sea, often sailing well into the 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied land features in the area. 

Last year, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Manila, where he became the first ever top American diplomat to clarify and reaffirm the applicability of the Mutual Defense Treaty to disputes over the South China Sea. While previous American administrations have made vague pledges of support in an event of conflict in the Pacific, the Trump administration went a step further, making it clear that, "as the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on any Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our Mutual Defense Treaty." 

Just months later, following the Reed Bank collision between a Chinese and a Filipino vessel, the  US Ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, signaled that even “any armed attack” by “government-sanctioned militias” could trigger US military intervention on behalf of its ally. In response, Philippine Defense Secretary Lorenzana told the author he welcomed  the prospect of revising the guidelines of the US-Philippine defense treaty to incorporate so-called ‘gray zone’ threats from armed militia forces in the South China Sea. 

And here comes the ultimate relevance of the US’ latest South China Sea statement. Just as the US ramped up its assurances of assisting the Philippines against both conventional and asymmetric “gray zone” threats, including maritime militia forces, it has also began siding with its Southeast Asian ally on maritime claims.   

In its latest South China Sea policy statement, not only has the US has rejected China’s claims, but also implicitly affirmed the Philippines’ claim over Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal, if not the Scarborough Shoal, since the disputed land features fall within “areas that the [Arbitral] Tribunal found to be in the Philippines' EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone] or on its continental shelf” as well as “Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction”. 

The Second Thomas Shoal lies just above 100 nautical miles from strategic naval and airbases in Subic and Clark, where the US still enjoys rotational military access. Following the 2012 naval standoff, China has exercised effective jurisdiction over the contested shoal, but has yet to reclaim and militarize it. If Beijing chooses to move ahead with placing weapons systems and large-scale infrastructure on the shoal, the Philippines will likely try to resist it through deployment of naval and coast guard assets. Top Philippine officials have made it clear that any Chinese reclamation or militarization of the shoal will be a “red line”, which could trigger joint Philippine-US armed response. 

The US also affirmed the Philippines’ claims to precious hydrocarbon and fisheries resources within its EEZ and continental shelf, warning against “Beijing’s harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development within those areas” as well as “any unilateral PRC actions to exploit those resources.” Although American top officials have often refused to delve into specifics of hypothetical scenarios, Pompeo’s latest statements significantly raise the probability of American armed intervention were China to, for instance, unilaterally eject Philippine troops stationed in the Second Thomas Shoal and other land features in the Spratlys, which falls within Philippines’ EEZ and continental shelf. 

America’s growing commitment to its Southeast Asia ally, however, also raises the risks of confrontation with China and, more certainty, undermine its long held claim to ‘neutrality’ on the South China Sea disputes. Without a doubt, we have entered a new and even more perilous phase in one of the most crucial maritime disputes of our era. 

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