Does ASEAN support US military presence in South China Sea?

by Mark J. Valencia / April 2, 2018 / The Jakarta Post

On March 23, the US Navy destroyer Mustin made a non-innocent passage within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificially built up and occupied Mischief Reef. China saw this as yet another “serious political and military provocation”. This latest Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) came amidst a downturn in US –China relations—particularly regarding the South China Sea (SCS).

Soon after that came a relevant statement by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a written interview with Australian media.  In an assessment of the United States’ role in Southeast Asian security he asserted that, “Most ASEAN members support and welcome the US stance.” Since Singapore is this year’s ASEAN Chair, Lee’s statement may hold special weight. But if taken out of context, his words may be misinterpreted.

Lee’s statement was a general assessment of the US role as a “Pacific power” — not specifically its behavior in the SCS. Indeed, he was referring to  US Defense Secretary James Mattis’ affirmation at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue that Southeast Asia was a priority area and that the US was committed “to the region’s security and prosperity“.

Lee also wrote, “From the region’s perspective, the most critical issue is the political and strategic resolve of the US to project a reliable and constructive presence as a Pacific power”. He was conveying some uncertainty about that commitment and resolve.

The key phrases in his assessment are “reliable and constructive presence” and “commitment to the region’s security and prosperity”. As Lee said at the March 18 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, “The SCS is an issue for specific ASEAN countries which are claimant states … It’s an issue for the rest of the ASEAN countries too because this is a security and stability question in Southeast Asia which will affect all”.

Of course all ASEAN members would welcome US commitment to the region’s security and prosperity. But a more specific question is, do most ASEAN members view the US military presence and activities in the SCS as “reliable and constructive” and thus contributing to “the region’s security and prosperity”?

It is difficult to assess the answer to this critical question from the perspective of ASEAN members because in the ASEAN style, negative official statements identifying the subject country are very rare.

It is clear that Singapore warmly welcomes the US military presence — and even facilitates it by providing temporary basing and refueling for its warships and intelligence collection aircraft. This is understandable because Singapore’s economy depends very heavily on commercial freedom and safety of navigation which it hopes the US military presence will ensure. Read more…

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