USS Carl Vinson sailing through the South China Sea. Image from Flickr, courtesy of US Pacific Fleet.

USS Carl Vinson sailing through the South China Sea. Image from Flickr, courtesy of US Pacific Fleet.

Washington welcome as China flexes muscle in Southeast Asia’s waters

12 July 2016

America needs to deepen and sustain its strategic interests in Southeast Asia in response to a strong regional demand for a robust American presence, especially in light of China’s growing military, economic and diplomatic influence, says a new report co-authored by two experts from ANU College of Asia and the Pacfic launched today.

The report, The Dynamics of US-China-Southeast Asia is co-authored by Dr Bates Gill and Dr Evelyn Goh from the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, with Dr Chin-Hao Huang, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale-NUS College.

Based on field research in Asian capitals and extensive briefings in the United States, the report finds that the majority of Southeast Asian states welcome a stronger regional presence for Washington.

“China’s recent actions in the South China Sea, including the building of man-made militarised islands and the claiming of disputed territory, is helping to catalyse a stronger demand for a more robust US presence in the region–diplomatically, economically, and militarily,” said Dr Bates Gill.

“However, Southeast Asian states will not align themselves solely with the United States. They all need to live with a China that is in their backyard and not going away.

“Instead, Southeast Asians will do what they do best – pursue a carefully calibrated ‘hedging’ strategy which looks to have stable and constructive relations with both Beijing and Washington and does everything possible to avoid a disastrous clash between the US and China.”

The report is launched on the same day as a highly-anticipated ruling in the international court case between the Philippines and China over Beijing’s controversial nine-dash-line. The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) will rule on the line’s legality. The court will also likely rule on the extent to which China and the Philippines may claim territorial as well as a related economic rights for certain rocks and islets which are in dispute between the two sides.

While it could add to tensions, the PCA’s decision might tip the scales towards peace and diplomacy says Dr Gill.

“While we cannot be sure at this stage how exactly the court will rule, it seems highly likely it will deem China’s “nine-dashed line”–which appears to extend Chinese sovereign claims over almost the entire South China Sea–as invalid, “ Dr Gill said.

“This would be the first time an internationally-recognised court of international law has issued such a determination. Beyond the legal specifics, this decision will likely strengthen the call by non-Chinese claimants in the South China Sea–in particular Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines–and others in the international community for China to abide by the ruling and negotiate resolution to the conflicting claims on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“China’s reaction to the ruling–which it has already said it would not respect–will tell us a lot about how and whether a more powerful China will feel bound by its international treaty obligations and a rules-based order more generally. An over-reaction on China’s part–for example taking destabilising military actions in the South China Sea–could disrupt commercial traffic or spark a military confrontation in the waterway, all of which would be bad news for Australia.”

The Dynamics of US-China-Southeast Asia Relations is launched at ANU 5.30pm, Tuesday 12 July and published by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Download a copy here.

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