American diplomacy is successfully building a regional alliance to counter China. In a dramatic shift, under Vietnam’s current rotating chairmanship, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), is finally taking a harder line against China. The ten-nation bloc founded during the Cold War had been notoriously soft on China until now, but US efforts, and recent aggressive actions by China in the South China Sea, and beyond, have pushed the organization to act (RELATED: Gray Zone Conflict – Disguised Chinese ‘Naval Forces’ on the Move).
At its June 26 virtual summit, Vietnam came out with one of the toughest ASEAN Chair statements on the South China Sea in years. For the first time, the regional bloc explicitly identified the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the sole legal basis to resolve maritime and territorial disputes in the region. This follows the US approach to the conflict.
ASEAN is therefore “rejecting any bid by China to adopt alternative legal principles, including its controversial “historic rights” claims, as a basis of negotiating any conflict management regime in the contested sea explains Asia Times.
This is part of a growing trend among China’s worried neighbors. As reported by Asia Times, “The move marks another milestone in a growing regional pushback against China’s expansive maritime claims and in the contested sea.”
More importantly, this ASEAN pushback on China is also pushing the association closer to the United States.
Significantly, noted Asia Times, Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh, former Vietnamese envoy to Washington until 2018, and a current advisor on the country’s ASEAN chairmanship underscored the continued importance of ASEAN-US cooperation. He stated that “generally we agree that the US is important for this region in terms of security and prosperity…we need the US to engage different ASEAN mechanisms since ASEAN is as strong as how it is engaged by major powers.
This growing regional shift against China is a victory for US diplomacy which has long been prodding the association to take a harder stance. On June 29, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, “The United States welcomes ASEAN Leaders’ insistence that South China Sea disputes be resolved in line with international law, including UNCLOS.”
“China cannot be allowed to treat the [South China Sea] as its maritime empire. We will have more to say on this topic soon,” he added.
This positive development follows the vastly increased US naval presence in the Pacific of recent weeks I previously wrote about. Three US super carrier strike groups are currently operating throughout the region. Diplomacy tends to be much more effective when combined with clear displays of power and resolve.
Along with Australia’s new hawkish defense policy, and both Japanese and Australian military buildups to counter China, ASEAN’s newly stiffening resolve only helps the US effort to lead a coalition of nations to effectively counter Chinese expansion and belligerence in the South China Sea. Under the Trump administration, US leadership in the region appears to be growing, not diminishing.