The Obama administration may have been caught on its back foot by China’s rapid island building in the South China Sea over the last few years, but despite its lackluster policy response, its preference for multilateralism over containment may be achieving success. Fortunately for Washington, its allies and partners in the region have come together to confront Beijing’s deeper, more assertive expansion in the South China Sea. Washington’s hub-and-spokes security architecture in Asia now appears to be coalescing at the eleventh hour, as Pacific nations warily await a ruling from the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), widely expected to rule against Beijing’s claims.
The region’s emerging security cooperation—primarily partnerships between middle powers such as the Philippines and Vietnam, but increasingly spearheaded by Japan’s reformist Abe administration—has materialized despite the lack of coherent strategy from Washington. To wit, smaller countries are coming together based on common self-interest, in the absence of coordinated U.S. leadership. This new Asian multilateralism may be more durable in the long run because it is not simply part and parcel of the U.S. rebalance, but rather an organic reaction deeply rooted in middle powers’ strategic interests.
What the Critics Have Been Saying
President Obama’s reluctance to pursue more aggressive military deterrence in the South China Sea has drawn numerous criticisms, even within the political establishment. Members of Congress and the military establishment have clamored for a more robust response. Senators Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio have called on the President to approve a more vigorous show of force from the Navy, and Representative Randy Forbes of Virginia organized a letter addressed to Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter, which expressed concern “that the continued failure to..[sail]…in close proximity to China’s artificial formations…could be interpreted as de facto acceptance of Beijing’s destabilizing behavior.”
Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Navy’s Pacific Command, has waged a well-publicized campaign for more active confrontation of China’s island-building in the South China Sea. Sen. John McCain recently stated , “The White House’s aversion to risk has resulted in an indecisive policy that has failed to deter China’s pursuit of maritime hegemony while confusing and alarming our regional allies and partners.”
Academics and analysts have echoed these hawkish sentiments. Daniel Wei Boon Chua, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, has argued that the current U.S. policy “forces Southeast Asian claimants to resort to self-help and trigger greater military buildup in the region”. Chua points to Vietnam and the Philippines’ increased defense spending, directed at improving naval capacity, as evidence that Washington has triggered a Southeast Asia arms race with a “go-it-alone” mentality. Furthermore, he writes in The National Interest, the United States’ emphasis on peace at any cost has persuaded “extraregional powers” such as Australia and Japan that they must “step in” to assert their interests in order to secure regional stability.
What Has Been Happening Recently
Despite critics’ insistence that Obama’s strategy of multilateralism rather than containment is undercutting American power in Asia, the reality on the ground is far different. Regional countries are welcoming a strong U.S. presence and have lined up to sign defense deals with Uncle Sam. Asian states have also formed security links and strategic partnerships amongst each other in a growing network to defend against Chinese domination. The countries at the forefront of this defensive bulwark, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, are U.S. allies that share the United States’ interest in an open international system. Like the United States, they are expressing increasing alarm at China’s willingness to ignore and bully smaller states in the South China Sea in a quest to shore up its expansive territorial claims. And they benefit from the status quo, which protects freedom of navigation and commerce, and guards against the dominance of any one state in the South China Sea.
In June 2015, the U.S. and Vietnam signed a Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations paving the way for closer military cooperation. There is speculation the U.S. may finally lift its weapons embargo on Vietnam ahead of President Obama’s visit to Vietnam this month. In March, the United States and the Philippines concluded a deal to allow U.S. troops on five Filipino bases, following the January decision by the Philippines’ Supreme Court upholding the legality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
America’s allies and partners in the region are forming stronger defense ties with each other as well. In November the Philippines and Vietnam, two of the most outspoken critics of China’s expansion in the South China Sea, put ink to a strategic partnership . In it, the two sides agreed to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation, particularly in joint activities in agreed-upon areas of the South China Sea, and to “abide by a rules-and norms-based approach in promoting a stable maritime security and maritime safety regime” consistent with international law. Last Friday, Australia and Singapore concluded a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership . And Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia last week agreed to joint patrols in the Sulu Sea, the area between the three nations.