As The Hague’s arbitration ruling on the South China Sea territorial conflict—levied by the Philippines against China in 2013—is approaching, questions abound whether the United States and its allies can maintain peace amid rising tensions stemming from an increasingly assertive China. While the ruling may set a precedent in strictly legal terms, it will ultimately be nonbinding, with the tribunal lacking the power to enforce its decision. Beijing has not spared the rod in condemning the “unilateral” move by the Philippines, and has managed to coax some forty countries onto its side in an attempt to prevent the UN General Assembly from discussing the territorial disputes any further. Moreover, a number of ASEAN states with no territorial claims in the South China Sea have broken ranks and signed a statement agreeing not to let the dispute affect relations with China.
In any case, China has already preemptively rejected the outcome of the tribunal, arguing that the arbitration “is neither well-grounded nor justified” and that the decision “won’t affect China’s sovereignty over South China Sea islands, or whitewash the Philippines’ illegal occupation of China’s islands and reefs in the South China Sea.” As J. Michael Cole has pointed out, this condemnation is based on “the historical narrative of ’national humiliation’ and the belief that as a product of Western imperialism, global institutions and the legal architecture of international law are little more than mechanisms to maintain a skewed distribution of power.” In effect, the court’s ruling against China is “evidence” that the West is attempting to keep China down. In the wake of the ruling against it, China is expected to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed area with the Philippines to protect its interests, as it did over the East China Sea in 2013. U.S. officials have expressed concern, stating that an ADIZ would prove provocative and destabilizing.
In that context, Vietnam is becoming a key player in the U.S.-led effort to prevent the South China Sea disputes from escalating. Owing to their strategic positions along Vietnam’s coast, Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang can play decisive roles in granting U.S. vessels better access to the South China Sea, where China seeks to protect its claim through land reclamations near the Spratly and Paracel islands. Vietnam could declare an ADIZ over the Paracels, but for this to be effective in deterring Beijing from establishing an ADIZ, Vietnam needs to be able to credibly signal its resolve.
In fact, enhanced cooperation between Vietnam and the United States in recent years might aid in achieving this signaling. Most importantly, however, it is testimony to the fact that the United States regards Vietnam as a pillar in its South China Sea policy. For example, the annual Naval Engagement Activity with the Vietnam People’s Navy, and the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense sending Vietnamese officers to U.S. staff colleges and other military institutions, have promoted cooperation and mutual trust between the former foes. Add the May 2016 lifting of its arms embargo against Vietnam, and all signs point towards a nascent U.S.-Vietnamese partnership.
But growing problems within ASEAN, leading to fracturing that could ultimately weaken the organization’s resolve and unity, may offset the benefits of enhanced collaboration between Vietnam and the United States. A glimpse of ASEAN’s weakening was provided on June 14, when ASEAN members officially expressed deep concern over escalating tensions in the South China Sea in a common statement issued at a special meeting in China, only to retract the statement shortly thereafter—probably due to Chinese pressure. A Malaysian foreign ministry spokeswoman stated simply that “we have to retract the media statement by the ASEAN foreign ministers . . . as there are urgent amendments to be made.”
This embarrassing display of crumbling under Chinese pressure comes on top of emerging rifts that threaten ASEAN’s efficacy as an organization to help steer and contain China. Philippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte is likely to embark on a reversal of his predecessor’s hard-line policy towards maritime disputes with China, and pivot away from Japan and the United States. Duterte favors direct multilateral negotiations with Beijing and—alongside voicing doubts about the usefulness of the forthcoming arbitration ruling—offered to backtrack on sovereignty-related issues in exchange for economic deals with China.
However, Duterte’s approach plays directly into China’s hands, because the Philippines needs to work together with other claimants such as Vietnam and Malaysia, to be able to push back against China’s actions. However, their support is conditional on Manila’s strategy being aimed at countering China, and since Duterte’s China policy is anemic, the potential for a strong diplomatic front is seriously undermined.
Meanwhile, deteriorating relations between Vietnam and Cambodia are stoking fears that the two countries’ smoldering border conflict could reignite. With eyes on the 2018 presidential election, Sam Rainsy and his Cambodia National Rescue Party are running on a platform of strong anti-Vietnamese sentiment, spurring on the dispute by expressing support for provocations committed by activists illegally entering Vietnam. The issue is exacerbated by fears in Hanoi that a Cambodia under Rainsy could use border disputes as a means of distracting Vietnam from the South China Sea, thereby weakening its hand against China. Were this to happen, Vietnam could get sucked into conflict with China and Cambodia alike, diminishing its capacity to meaningfully contribute to U.S. strategy in the Pacific.
In the medium term, the tribunal’s hyped-up decision is likely to turn out to be a flop, seeing how the Philippines is unlikely to enforce it, Vietnam is threatened by grave security threats on its western border, and ASEAN’s overall unity is crumbling. As such, South China Sea issues must be championed by the next U.S. president with even greater force. The future administration must not waver and should reaffirm its support for Vietnam in the case of a renewed border flare-up, and push to maintain ASEAN’s relevance as a forum for discussion on South China Sea issues for China and littoral states. Otherwise, the vaunted “Pivot to Asia” will crumble into the waters of the South China Sea.