At the recently concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reiterated America’s commitment to countering Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. At the same time, many Southeast Asian countries are worried that they may have to choose between the U.S. and China very soon.
“The South China Sea doesn’t belong to any one nation, and you can be sure: The United States will continue to sail and fly wherever international law allows and our national interests demand… Let me be clear: China’s militarization and territorial expansion in the South China Sea is illegal and dangerous. It threatens the sovereignty of many nations and endangers the prosperity of the world,” Pence said in a statement (Reuters).
Pence also stated that the U.S. commitment to the development and protection of the Indo-Pacific has never been stronger. He also played up America’s efforts to boost infrastructure projects in the region in order to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Pence later traveled to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Papua New Guinea where he declared that a new naval base would be built in the region to counter China’s maritime activities.
While Pence was giving his statement, the U.S. military was putting on a display of strength in the Philippine Sea, off the coast of Japan. USS John C. Stennis and USS Ronald Reagan conducted naval drills involving their strike teams and escorts.
“Bringing two carrier strike groups together provides unparalleled naval combat power, tremendous operational flexibility, and reach across the region… It shows our forces at their best, operating confidently at sea, and demonstrates that the US Navy will fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows. The increased presence of two carrier strike groups in the region highlights the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Phil Sawyer, Vice Admiral of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said to Asia Times.
The growing U.S.-China conflict, both in matters of trade and the South China Sea, is making Southeast Asian nations worried. Some believe that they will have to choose between the two giants.
“If you are friends with two countries, which are on different sides, sometimes it is possible to get along with both, sometimes it’s more awkward when you try to get along with both. I think it’s very desirable for us not to have to take sides, but the circumstances may come when ASEAN may have to choose one or the other. I am hoping that it’s not coming soon,” Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, said in a statement at the recent ASEAN summit. (The Independent)
Lee also added that since ASEAN is not a big enough bloc, it will have to learn to work with the world and maintain as much cohesion as possible between themselves. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad confirmed to reporters that the U.S.-China trade war was an important topic discussed between various regional leaders during the summit.
While President Trump’s absence at the ASEAN meeting did throw up concerns, Pence assured leaders that the U.S. sees ASEAN as an “irreplaceable strategic partner.” And though the Trump administration is yet to reveal a concrete plan to counter China’s economic investments in Southeast Asia, strengthening military presence in the region is definitely on top of the agenda.