With Donald Trump heading to Vietnam and the Philippines this month, I’ve written about the administration’s approach to Southeast Asia thus far and what an economic agenda for the region might look like. In that first piece, I argued that the president should describe a comprehensive vision for the region. On the security front in particular, the United States should strive to shape a Southeast Asia that is at peace with itself and its neighbors and in which states can resist external coercion.
Southeast Asia faces myriad security challenges, but two are particularly pressing: the South China Sea and terrorism. One presidential trip to the region will not solve these problems, but President Trump can begin to set the stage for a more robust and effective U.S. approach.
The South China Sea
China has incurred only limited costs for its destabilizing behavior in the South China Sea. Going forward, the United States should seek to deter China from additional island building; from deploying significant military forces to its new “islands”; from harassing foreign military and fishing vessels operating in the sea; and from threatening, and of course using, force against its neighbors (as Beijing did to Hanoi this past summer ).
There are a number of ways to begin enhancing such deterrence. In his visit to Beijing, President Trump should make clear to Xi Jinping that the Chinese president’s insistence that the South China Sea does not concern the United States is falling on deaf ears. Trump should personally convey to Xi that Washington has a direct and enduring interest in the South China Sea. He should then explain that Beijing will face consequences for further malfeasance. In particular, President Trump might explain that the United States is considering a number of possible actions should China seize more territory, engage in more dredging, or deploy military forces to reclaimed land. Such actions might include:
- a moratorium on education visas for family members of senior government officials and business leaders;
- the suspension of EB-5 investor visa approvals for Chinese applicants;
- offers of amnesty for targets of China’s Operation Foxhunt;
- sanctions on companies involved in dredging and construction on South China Sea features;
- a State Department study on the feasibility of establishing a U.S. representative office in Dharamsala, home to the Tibetan government-in-exile, similar to the one in Taipei;
- joint U.S. Coast Guard patrols with their Southeast Asian counterparts.
Options abound. The United States has plenty of leverage it could put to use vis-à-vis China, should it choose to do so, both inside and outside the South China Sea.
Enhancing U.S. military posture in the South China Sea is likewise important to shaping Chinese decision making. This year, the U.S. Navy is on pace to average about two ships in the sea on any given day. Given the size of the sea and the extent of Chinese ambitions, this is simply not sufficient to give Beijing considerable pause. To sustain greater U.S. military presence in the South China Sea, new permanent or rotational basing arrangements may be needed.
Vietnam would be an ideal site for such a new arrangement given its location on the sea’s western reaches and its own fraught relationship with China. To be sure, Vietnam’s “Three Nos”—no military alliances; no foreign bases; no reliance on one country to combat another—are a substantial hindrance here. But judging from Vietnamese actions rather than words—for example, opening Cam Ranh Bay to port visits from foreign naval vessels—commitment to the “Three Nos” seems to be weakening.
It seems likely that President Trump, while in Vietnam, will announce an agreement to have an aircraft carrier visit the country next spring for the first time since the Vietnam War. In meetings with President Tran, Trump should push for implementation of the previously reached deal to preposition U.S. military supplies for humanitarian relief in Da Nang. The American president should also press Tran for an agreement on upgrading the annual U.S.-Vietnam Naval Engagement Activity to a combined exercise. Donald Trump is not going to depart Hanoi with an invitation to base a destroyer squadron at Cam Ranh Bay, but any progress in tightening security ties and weakening the “Three Nos” should be considered a success.
The Philippines would also seem an obvious choice, given the treaty alliance and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, to host a new complement of U.S. naval vessels in the South China Sea. Rodrigo Duterte, however, has proved to be a wild card in the relationship and sought to distance the Philippines from the United States during his first year as president. That being said, his approach to Washington has softened in recent months—due in part to the transition from Obama to Trump and in part to American aid during the battle for Marawi—and the Philippine defense secretary recently announced an expansion of bilateral military exercises in 2018.