South China Sea 2013: Betting on the American Horse

By Khan VU Duc 19 January 2013

A little more than two weeks into 2013, eyes remain on the South China Sea and the maritime disputes, and the Western Pacific.

The disputes remain fluid and the region dynamic. It is far too early into the year to discuss developments in the South China Sea disputes, although one can assume that a new calendar year is unlikely to influence the position of those claimant states involved. Unfortunately, politics and hubris appear to be driving the debate rather than real interests. It has been reported that the winner of any disputes is unlikely to gain enough energy to make any significant difference to any of the claimants’ growing energy needs. This is particularly true in regard to China.

Still, China and Southeast Asia remain as dynamic as ever, their future fairly bright. While hope and optimism continue to hold in the region, much less can be said in the United States, where economic recovery is slow and the future still uncertain.

House Out of Order

The New Year in the United States was ushered in under a cloud of uncertainty as Congress struggled to find a solution to the fiscal cliff, which would have seen tax increases and spending reductions that could have sent the country spiraling into another recession. However, a last minute deal staved off disaster, at least for now.

Rather than breathe a sigh of relief, although some did just that, pundits and the American public were again treated to the dysfunctional happenings of their Congress. This was partisan politics at its worst, with liberals blaming President Obama for conceding to Republicans, while Speaker Boehner was criticized by conservatives for conceding to the President and Democrats. What resulted from the eleventh hour deal was the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, a Band-Aid solution to the nation’s economic difficulties that satisfied no one.

The next four years may prove to be the most challenging for President Obama, requiring him (at least until midterm elections) to deal with a difficult House of Representatives. That expression of “Get your house in order” has never been more appropriate.

For all the drama that preceded the midnight deal between the President and House Speaker over the fiscal cliff, another challenge looms on the horizon—or two months, to be specific—the debt ceiling and sequestration. In what will be more senseless political procrastination and last minute hand-wringing by Congress and the White House, in which the American public are held hostage (not the first time this has happened, and surely not the last), one can begin to understand the immediate priorities of Americans.

No Love for Foreign Policy
Domestic issues such as the economy and jobs stand at the forefront of American concerns. For the average American citizen, paying off debts, saving for retirement and seeing their children through college are likely to rate greater attention than some islands in dispute on the other side the world. The South China Sea is sufficiently far away that is out of sight and out of mind.

In a CBS/New York Times poll conducted prior to the third US presidential debate, when asked which issue was most important, foreign policy garnered only 4 percent from respondents in contrast to 62 percent for the economy and jobs.

More than that, however, a fatigue of foreign missions has understandably set in upon the American public. The current mission in Afghanistan, the recent withdrawal from Iraq, limited operations in Libya during the Arab Spring, and what appears to be a developing conflict against Islamist militants in Mali and throughout Africa—all of this in addition to a lagging economy—is it any wonder that the United States has remained hesitant in involving itself in the South China Sea disputes?

The cost of the Iraq war is estimated at more than US $3 trillion, which includes war material and treatment for disabled veterans, and is undeniably responsible for a rather sizable portion of the US’s current debt; and, of course, one cannot forget the thousands of lives lost. The public’s appetite for foreign adventures has been well and truly sated at this point, and America’s leaders understand as much, as evidenced by limited US involvement in the Libyan uprising.

However, the US’s pivot to Asia-Pacific is not limited or short-term but a concerted, long-term effort of re-balancing American forces to the region—one of few issues which have garnered solid bipartisan support.

Picking the Lesser of Two

Countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines have been among the most vocal opponents of China’s claim to the South China Sea. The former countries have sought to internationalize the territorial and maritime disputes, much to the chagrin of China, which has viewed the disputes as a matter between it and claimant countries.

Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia as well as other Southeast Asian nations, in equal agreement regarding their concern of China’s increasing assertiveness, see the US pivot as an effort to balance against Chinese expansionism. These countries, which are members of the much-divided Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hope Washington can do what they cannot—that is to contain Beijing. Although it is fairly true that the pivot is in response to China’s rise, it is questionable whether the US has any plans to engage head on with China.

During the third presidential debate last year between President Obama and Governor Romney, the President remarked that China was both an adversary and a potential partner. The language used should be clear indication enough. Although the US and China continue to regard the other with suspicion, they remain too interdependent to sever ties.

Knowing this, can any of the aforementioned Asean countries expect the US to be in its corner when push comes to shove? If a deal between Washington and Beijing could be a struck, a compromise in which both parties receive what they desire, what reason is there for the US to engage in conflict with China? If the China can be made an agreeable partner, it could prove a far more capable partner than Asean altogether.

The difficulty for many Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, looking to balance against China’s expansionism is not what the US will do, but whether they (the countries anticipating a US pivot to the region) can go against China alone. The obvious answer, of course, is no.

Unable to go against China alone, these countries must therefore throw their support behind the US, regardless of their confidence in Washington. What the US can promise and whether the US can fulfill its promises are secondary to these countries’ immediate concerns, which is China’s assertiveness. They view in America an opposing force to this assertiveness, and as such may find that there is little in the way of choice when it comes to picking a side.