THE UNITED STATES is “asleep to the broader strategic interests” in the South China Sea dispute under President Donald Trump, a renowned international relations analyst said on Monday.
Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for International Law (National University of Singapore) Dr Lynn Kuok argued the US administration should focus more on the South China Sea in addition to Chinese cooperation on North Korea, or else risks permanently undermining the international rule of law.
Speaking at the first Germany-Indonesia Strategic Dialogue at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, she said that Trump’s administration is “going to be waking up to a very different Asia if it drops this ball.”
There are two ways of viewing the dispute, said Kuok, who is also a former Visiting Research Fellow at Harvard Law School, fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Centre for East Asia Policy Studies and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on International Security.
Firstly, it can be conceived as a quarrel over competing territorial and maritime claims between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia – in which Indonesia claims it is not involved.
Secondly – a “more important way of looking at it” – a situation that concerns all nations interested in protecting their rights under international law, including freedom of the seas and associated rights to navigation, overflight and peaceful resolution.
Beijing has “sought to convince the international community” of the first aspect “to the exclusion of the second,” Kuok said.
China claims disagreements should be solved bilaterally without the involvement of actors like the US and Asean – a “narrative increasingly gaining buy-in,” particularly from smaller nations in the region.
“The US is going to make sure we protect our interests” in the South China Sea, said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in January.
“It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper,” he said.
“We’re going to make sure we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”
China promptly responded, asserting: “The US is not a country directly involved in the South China Sea. We urge it to respect facts and speak and act cautiously to avoid damaging peace and stability in the area.”
But Trump has since significantly toned down his rhetoric regarding China, particularly since an April US-China summit and friendly meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Florida.
“[Our] relationship with China is long. Of course, by China standards, it’s very short. When I’m with [Xi], he’s a great guy. He was telling me, you know they go back 8,000 years, we have 1776 is like modern history,” Trump said.
At that time, he claimed to have raised concerns regarding China’s activities in the South China Sea – including building and fortifying islands in pursuit of expansive territorial claims in the strategic waterway. However, the focus of the US administration since has been cooperation on North Korea.
Kuok expressed concern over Trump’s dismantling of Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” and his willingness to “overlook” the issue of the South China Sea in order to get China on board regarding its reclusive neighbour and ally.
The Belt and Road initiative “displays vision and leadership” for the international community from China, she said, while Trump is pursuing an “America First,” economic nationalist agenda, including removing itself from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Kuok referenced former Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew’s critical observation American interpretation of international relations was “like a movie” where one could “pause” and return to hit “play” when the nation returns to focus on Asia.
“If the US wants to substantially affect the strategic evolution of Asia, it cannot come and go,” the late prime minister was famous for saying.
According to Kuok, the US and nations around the world have “strong interests in protecting the rule of law to ensure regional and international peace and stability.”