08.09.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Regarding the most recent South China Sea maneuvers by the United States and its allies

Despite having primarily military connotation, the word “maneuvers” (“maneuvering”) may be used to describe the actions of a single state or even a collection of states in a given political situation. Controlling the situation in the South China Sea and the surrounding land area, which is made up of ten Southeast Asian nations and collectively forms a regional association known as ASEAN, is one of the most significant issues at the current stage of the Great Global Game.

Over the past 20 years, the South China Sea and Southeast Asia as a whole have been increasingly at the center of the military and political maneuvering of the two current superpowers, the People’s Republic of China and the United States. But it would be more accurate to say that the South China Sea is the southern region of a larger territory of such maneuvers, which can be depicted as a strip about 1–1.5 thousand kilometers wide, stretching for 5–6 thousand kilometers from the northeast, i.e., from the Korean Peninsula with Japan, to the southwest, to the Strait of Malacca. Because the Strait of Malacca connects the aforementioned strip, notably its “southern zone,” with the Indian Ocean, which is where the main commerce routes to Africa and the Greater Middle East region pass, the problem of control over it has strategic significance.

In this disposition, Taiwan is an essential component of the two great international powers’ mutual maneuvering space. Washington’s loss of control over this island destroys a more or less unified space of confrontation with the PRC. This is yet another reason why the US administration hasn’t yet demonstrated a willingness to exchange the potential for better relations with its present top geopolitical rival for the withdrawal of any support for Taiwan.

At the same time, the Philippines, a major SEA country and an ASEAN member, is increasingly regarded as the “southern backstop” of the American position in Taiwan and the pro-American regime that currently rules the island. Despite occasional statements by the Philippine government that it will not allow its country to become a battleground between two of the world’s most powerful players, this is exactly what has occurred in recent years.

Furthermore, it cannot be said that this pattern is influenced by which of the opposing political factions is in power at the time. None of them can afford to refuse the support of the “Collective West,” led by the United States, in its territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea. Other Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, are receiving similar support on the same matter.

This support is both obvious and varied. The decision of the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration in the summer of 2016, which satisfied the Philippines’ protest over the PRC’s claims to own 80–90% of the waters of the South China Sea, including its island archipelagos and oil and gas fields, was a critical part of this process. Again, the most important maritime trade route passes through the South China Sea.

China did not take part in the litigation and does not accept the decision. However, the United States and its allies recognize it and use it to denote their presence, including military presence, in the South China Sea. Which, it should be pointed out, takes place, if not at the direct invitation of the aforementioned countries of the Southeast Asia, then at least with their consent.

One of America’s top “think tanks,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), recently cited a table of preferences regarding the said decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) among more than fifty nations that have indicated their position on the matter. It was created in advance of the annual South China Sea Conference, which took place on June 28, and has been conducted annually since 2011.

The usual participants include CSIS experts, prominent members of the American establishment, and officials from a number of other nations. Experts from Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, India, Japan, and other countries were among those in attendance. The two primary speakers were Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink, who previously served as US Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and Representative Jennifer Kiggans, Member of House Armed Services Committee, a former United States Navy helicopter pilot. Those wishing to read their presentations in general and who expect fair content and an exchange of remarks with the moderator of the session can do so here and here.

The former’s remark about the illegality of the PRC’s claims to the Philippines’ Zone of Exclusive Economic Interests, which is 200 nautical miles wide according to international law, is worth noting. In doing so, specific reference is made to the aforementioned PCA ruling. Meanwhile, incidents involving Chinese and Philippine border vessels have occurred in these “zones” recently. Another one happened only recently, in early August, 105 miles off the Palawan island in the Philippines, close to a coral atoll.

China’s opponents have cited this most recent incident as evidence of its “aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea and demanded “retaliatory measures.” This role is specifically given to the joint maneuvers, which began on August 23, i.e., already under the military-applied interpretation of the term, by detachments of warships from the United States, Australia, and Japan near the western coast of the Philippines. The amphibious helicopter carriers America, Canberra, and Izumo will provide support to the joint forces. Despite the fact that the Philippine Navy will not take part in the exercise, it is stated that the commanders of the participating nations will “meet with their Philippine counterparts in Manila” after it is over.

These naval maneuvers are a historic event overall. It seamlessly fits into a sequence of political actions taken over the last few years to stabilize the situation in the aforementioned strategic “strip” under Washington’s control. It is enough to mention a few of the events that took place this year: the visit to Australia by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida; the meeting of the defense ministers of the United States, Japan, and Australia that took place in Singapore alongside the annual Shangri-La Dialogue; the US-Australian “2+2 Forum” that took place in Brisbane; and, most recently, the trilateral summit that the leaders of the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea attended at Camp David.

Consolidating the northeastern extremity of the strategic “strip” was the goal of this last event, which is especially significant. It may well serve as a fatal blow to the faint yet until very recently quite alive hope for any compromise solution to the myriad issues threatening the integrity of the entire Indo-Pacific region.

The trilateral summit between China, Japan, and the ROK that was set to take place at the end of this year is its first and most obvious victim. The need for something resembling a common economic space in Northeast Asia has been talked about in all three countries since the first decade of the millennium. In order to develop precise plans for economic cooperation, many platforms at the cabinet level were established.

Since 2008, the annual summits have been conducted. Last time – in 2019. The fact that all variants of the aforementioned PRC-Japan-ROK trilateral configuration have ceased to exist in any fashion since then illustrates the then started severe worsening of the situation in the Indo-Pacific region in general and in Northeast Asia in particular.

The major indicator of a shift in this trend from negative to positive would be an improvement in the political climate in the PRC’s relations with Japan. And recently, the NEO noted the emergence of such signs. Again, Camp David has the capacity to entirely neutralize them. This viewpoint is shared by the authhttps://journal-neo.su/ru/2023/07/27/yaponiya-v-poiskah-strategii-optimalnoj-vneshnej-politiki/or of a commentary on the outcomes of the Camp David meeting, which appeared in the Chinese Global Times.

The participation of the Japanese JS Izumo helicopter carrier in the aforementioned trilateral naval drills, which in the next few months should transform into a “small aircraft carrier” with a group of the latest F-35B fighters, demonstrates this opinion. Because it is engaged, together with American and Australian warships, in “maneuvering” in the South China Sea’s very sensitive area for the PRC.

And that’s far enough away from Japan to be very close to China.


Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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