THE United States may play a tough game, but its influence in the South China Sea dispute is on the decline.
There have been ongoing tensions over the disputed waters for years, but China is the only state to take action by building up its military apparatus on its artificial islands made of reefs and rocks.
Not all states have made claims of sovereignty, however, with many preferring the disputed waters to remain international due to the US$5.3 trillion worth of world trade passing through annually.
After threatening to prohibit China’s access to the islands, the U.S. has found itself in the awkward position of not knowing what to do next. The only option is to deploy the military, but at risk of a clash with China, such a move is unlikely. Only last year did Chinese president Xi Jinping remark that:
“No foreign country should expect us to swallow the bitter fruit of damage to our sovereignty, security and development interests.”
China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson, Lu Kang, also argued the U.S. should not involve itself in the dispute, calling upon regional governments to maintain peace and stability.
There are talks underway for the signing of a nonaggression pact between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but the success of this diplomatic initiative is uncertain. According to Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., the Philippines wants the pact signed within six months.
In the past, the Philippines was a strong critic of China’s aggressive stance over the disputed waters. Manila offered the first direct challenge to Beijing’s claim over the South China Sea through raising a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. On July 12, 2016, the tribunal found that China had no legal basis for its historical claim to the ‘nine-dash line’; representing a victory for the Philippines. The finding was merely symbolic, however, and Beijing said it has no intention of abiding by the ruling.
But more recently, the Philippines has changed its tone. Since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte, the U.S. has been sidelined in favour of less traditional allies, Russia and China.
The territorial dispute between the Philippines and China no longer dictates the relationship.
Yasay said that raising the successful arbitration ruling at the ASEAN Annual Summit being held in the Philippines this year, would be “counter-productive”. Last year, Beijing argued bilateral talks should dictate the future of the contested waters, and Yasay agreed, stating, “This is a matter that we will be raising with China at some future time in bilateral talks”.
Recent U.S. provocation will only challenge cooperation in other areas. It’s become clear the U.S. wants to take a tough stance on China, but there are few possibilities to exert influence in the region outside of military force.
Now that the Philippines has improved its relationship with China, tensions have eased over the South China Sea. In turn, this has allowed for China to improve relations with other states in the region, most evident through Vietnam’s communist party chief Nguyễn Phú Trọng visiting China for four days.
Washington is unable to assert its authority in the South China Sea because China dominates the game. The U.S. may act provocatively, but China will remain in control.
If the U.S. wants to begin exerting influence too, it must begin fixing old relationships and creating new ones.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent