In Southeast Asia, the United States has rebalanced its attention to a vital region while seeking to avoid alarming China. The Obama Administration’s comprehensive efforthas engaged a diverse array of countries, strengthening ties with both unlikely partners and longtime allies. Coupled with a brief study of American interests in the region, an examination of the strategy applied to two countries – Vietnam and the Philippines –reveals little cause for the Chinese concern that America is pursuing a policy of containment.
In Vietnam, the U.S. has succeeded in creating a partnership with a nation that was a bitter foe just forty years ago. Perceiving China’s recent policies as a disturbing sign of greater assertiveness to come, Vietnam has felt it necessary to hedge against its neighbor by pursuing a closer relationship with the United States.
The driving force behind this reconciliation has been China’s provocations in the South China Sea, which have infuriated the Vietnamese government and its people and caused them to view China as a potentially destabilizing force in the region. The May 2014 placement of a Chinese oil rig within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) marked a highpoint in the tensions, sparking deadly anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam and naval incidents in the area of the drilling.
Vietnamese and Chinese vessels clash near the disputed oil rig. Photo: Getty Images
Chinese diplomacy has not eased Vietnamese concerns. Rhetoric regarding the South China Sea has been inflexible: in 2010, officials labeled the region one of China’s “core interests,” joining only Taiwan and Tibet. At a meeting concerning the South China Sea the same year, in which all disputant states were present, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reportedly stared at Singapore’s Foreign Minister while pointedly stating, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” In the eyes of Vietnam and its fellow Southeast Asian States, this threatening tone has confirmed fears inspired by China’s aggressive policy in the region.
While some American observers have gone so far as to call for a full treaty alliance with Hanoi, several barriers will keep a degree of separation the two countries. The first is Vietnam’s policy of the “three nos”: no military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory, and no dependence on any countries for help in combating other countries. The last point is particularly important in the context of Vietnam’s history: when China invaded in 1979, the Soviet Union – having signed a defense treaty with Hanoi just a year before – declined to come to its aid. This history provides Vietnam with a powerful warning against reliance on powerful but distant allies.
Another analogy that suggests restraint is the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Looking to Moscow once more, Vietnam sees a disturbing example of how a major power will react to its small neighbor aligning with a rival. Of course, the comparison is imperfect, but the degree of similarity between the two cases is striking nonetheless.
The greatest constraint upon Vietnamese diplomacy is its economy’s dependence upon trade with China. China is Vietnam’s largest trade partner, and the source of many of the inputs critical to its burgeoning manufacturing industry. While some worry that tensions could lead to a trade war, economic concerns have thus far won out, and the Vietnamese government has been careful to avoid pushing China too far.
Even with these constraints, Vietnam has welcomed American efforts to deepen ties on diplomatic, economic, and military fronts. The rebalancing is directed toward all of Asia, but extra attention has been directed toward Vietnam – a prominent victim of China’s actions in the South China Sea, and a country with an especially dynamic and promising economy.
America has promoted Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the main pillar of its economic rebalancing to Asia. The United States, Vietnam, and 11 other Asian-Pacific nations are currently negotiating the deal,which seeks to reduce both tariff and non-tariff trade barriers while maintaining high standards for intellectual property, the environment, and labor rights. American officials have said they would welcome China, but it is widely acknowledged that the deal’s standards are too stringent for China to adhere to. Vietnam also faces challenges to joining, especially with its reluctance to reform state-owned enterprises and labor rights. Its presence in the negotiations is a testament to the determination of both America and Vietnam to deepen their economic ties.
Current members negotiating the TPP. Image: The New York Times
Diplomatically, the bulk of American efforts are directed toward the region rather than individual states. With regard to the South China Sea disputes, the United States has recognized that no single Southeast Asian state can hope to receive bilateral negotiations with China on equal footing. As a result, it has worked quietly to promote a closer unification of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which wields significant influence but, like all regional organizations, is held back by the disagreements of its member states.
Even with the region-wide focus of diplomacy, however, a rapid exchange of interstate visits has reflected Vietnam’s importance. American congressional delegations and Administration officials have met with the Vietnamese with increasing regularity, and Gen. Martin Dempsey’s 2011 trip marked the first visit by a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 1971.Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party and the country’s supreme leader, will make his first visit to the United States this June.
America’s military policy constitutes the most visible aspect of its rebalancing strategy, and naturally draws the bulk of Beijing’s complaints. In Vietnam, the U.S. has coupled emphasis on exchanges and cooperation with direct (although minor) military aid. Military-to-military ties have grown greatly in the past decade, particularly with the introduction of an annual Naval Engagement Activity (NEA), which pairs each navy in noncombat exercises. In 2014, the Secretary of the Navy also invited Vietnam to join the biannual, U.S.-led RIMPAC exercises, the largest naval exercise in the world.
While noncombat exercises are a mild form of cooperation, American promises of military aid to Vietnam reflect a much stronger commitment to rebalancing. In December of 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry announced $18 million in aid to Vietnam to “boost maritime security.” A portion of the money was earmarked for the purchase of five unarmed patrol boats for the Vietnamese Coast Guard – a minor increase, but symbolically significant. Additionally, Japan – the linchpin of American security in the Pacific and another country locked in a territorial dispute with China – provided Vietnam with an additional six boats, worth $5 million. And in 2014, the U.S. eased its ban on providing Vietnam with lethal arms, opening the door to a number ofsystems for its coastal defense.
In the Philippines, the U.S. is working to further deepen its relationship with a treaty ally and longtime partner. After a brutal war with the United States that left it an American colony, the Philippines maintained a better relationship with its conqueror than most countries, and upon gaining independence sought American protection throughout the Cold War. While Filipinos resentment of U.S. military bases led to an American exit in the 1990s and a slight chill in relations, the Philippines remains one of America’s closest allies in the region.
As with Vietnam, the Philippines’ desire to draw even closer to America is explained by Chinese tactics in the South China Sea. The Sino-Philippine conflict has actually been significantly more contentious. Because it shares no border with China, is less economically dependent, and has signed a mutual defense treaty with America, the Philippine government has been less constrained by geopolitics than its Vietnamese counterpart. (It should be noted, however, that the U.S. has declined to clarify whether this defense treaty applies to Philippine claims in the South China Sea.)
These circumstances have enabled the Philippine government to apply for international arbitration of its disputes in the South China Sea, a step that Vietnam considered too divisive. China has objected, stating that it will “neither accept nor participate” in the arbitration, and maintained its political stance of indisputable sovereignty throughout the South China Sea. It is highly unlikely that the suit will achieve any result.
In spite of greater economic insularity than Vietnam, the Philippines has still fallen victim to what isperhaps China’s greatest asset: economic coercion. China has employed this strategy often, taking advantage of its large domestic market and the control the state retains over the economy. In June of 2012, it reacted to a confrontation with the Philippine Navy by cutting off Filipino banana imports. Justifying the policy as a health regulation, China succeeded in choking an important industry and driving Manila to adopt a conciliatory tone.
Economically, the United States and the Philippines are already quite close. America is the Philippines’ second-largest trade partner (after Japan) and its biggest investor. Still, the Obama Administration has worked to further enhance the relationship. While the Philippines does not currently take part in the TPP negotiations, it has expressed interest, and high-level officials from each country have met to discuss what its participation would look like. In 2011, the fiftieth anniversary of the bilateral defense treaty, the two countries signed a five-year Partnership For Growth (PFG) agreement, designating the Philippines as a priority area for American development assistance. That same year, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (a government agency) signed a five-year, $434 million compact to combat poverty and encourage growth in the Philippines.
While historical closeness, cultural similarity, and the depth of Philippine-American exchange have already created close ties, American diplomats have sought to further reinforce the relationship. The two countries recently began holding a Bilateral Strategic Dialogue to institutionalize the regular exchange of ideas. And in 2011, Secretary of State Clinton visited the Philippines to release a joint Philippine-American declaration,reaffirming that the alliance had “never been stronger.”
The military aspect of rebalancing has consisted of naval aid, closer cooperation and training, and – most importantly – a strengthened defense treaty. Having always depended on its American counterpart, the Philippine Navy is one of the weakest in the region. Its flagship is a 45-year-old cutter, donated by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2011. The U.S. has offered an additional ship, communications equipment, and training, but recognizes that no amount of aid will enable the Philippines to unilaterally defend against Chinese naval incursions.
The true cornerstone of the military rebalance is a ten-year enhanced defense pact negotiated in 2014. The agreement creates no permanent bases, an option that then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel dismissed as a “return to an outdated Cold War mentality.”Instead, it invites rotational deployments of American ships and advisers, which will significantly escalate military presence in the region. It also opens the door to greater commitments of military aid to the Philippines.
The symbolic value of a return to the Philippines, just over twenty years after public protest forced the closing of American bases at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base, is indicative of the region’s tense atmosphere. Some anti-American sentiment remains, stalling the agreement in a legal challenge that is now before the Philippine Supreme Court. Still, Philippine officials are confident that the case will be thrown out when a decision is reached.
Assessing American Intentions Throughout Southeast Asia
In spite of American efforts to paint the rebalance in nonthreatening terms, Beijing has frequently voiced its concern that the strategy aims to encircle and contain China. These complaints have especially been directed at the military components of these partnerships with Vietnam and the Philippines. China – at least publicly – eyes these moves suspiciously, and assumes that realist, hegemonic motives dominate American intentions.
For many reasons, however, this theory does not hold water. Even if China were to be excluded from the equation, a shift in attention to Asia would remain eminently logical. The War on Terror absorbed American resources in the Middle East for a decade after 9/11, but never promised long-term benefits to the national interest. Nor does any other region offer the dynamism and promise of Asia, which officials and scholars predict will be at the center of international affairs for decades to come
While China’s era of incredible growth is finally slowing, the rest of Asia is only beginning to take off. Asia holds more than half of the world’s population and is projected to account for half of its economy by 2050. Southeast Asia in particular holds much of this untapped potential, and four of the ten ASEAN states already rank among the world’s 20 most competitive economies.
With this unparalleled importance in mind, it becomes clear that the rebalance is simply an alignment of American resources and commitments with its interests – and that if anything, criticisms should question if the policy has gone far enough. With a globally integrated economy and worldwide commitments and interests, the United States does not see itself as having the option to neglect such a crucial region.
The rebalancing strategy has also emphasized the importance of improved relations with China. While public statements have often put America and China at odds, particularly over territorial disputes, diplomatic and military coordination have improved considerably. The annual, Strategic and Economic Dialogue receives a great deal of attention, and institutionalizes the frank exchange of positions between the two countries. Communication has been at the heart of American efforts to ease Chinese suspicions. For example, the Administration even privately briefed China on its plans before embarking on President Obama’s 2014 trip to Asia, in which he announced the enhanced defense treaty with the Philippines.
In responding to fears of containment, it is also important to note that a struggling China would be a disaster for America’s economy and interests. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put it in 2014,“I worry more about a China that falters economically than I do about them building another aircraft carrier.” The American and Chinese economies are deeply intertwined, and economic turmoil could also provoke political instability in China and East Asia– the last thing the United States would like to see.
Chinese ships expanding land in the South China Sea. Image: Center for Strategic and International Studies
Beijing may blame America for regional sentiment turning against it, but it would be better served by turning the mirror on itself. China’s policy in the South China Sea has done much more damage to its stature in Southeast Asia than American actions conceivably could. With aggressive expansion, including incursions into both Vietnamese and Philippine Exclusive Economic Zones, China has flouted both regional and international norms and laws. Its inflexible and even threatening rhetoric and diplomacy have only compounded the problem.
Only this behavior can explain why a country like Vietnam has sought greater friendship with the United States, or why ASEAN has pursued greater unity in dealing with other countries. China may well regret its policies in the South China Sea: in pursuit of territorial gains, it has sacrificed regional influence and reputation, thus containing itself.