Reuters has noticed something troubling about the Obama Administration’s Asia policy:
In the lead-up to an international court ruling on China’s claims in the South China Sea this month, United States officials talked about rallying a coalition to impose “terrible” costs to Beijing’s international reputation if flouted the court’s decision.
But just two weeks after the July 12 announcement by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague – which at least on paper, appeared to be a humiliating defeat for China – the U.S. strategy appears to be unraveling and the court’s ruling is in danger of becoming irrelevant.
Since the ruling, the State Department has failed to get many countries on record standing beside Washington and Manila—and for international law. The European Union couldn’t agree on a statement affirming the Hague’s ruling because countries like Greece and Hungary, where China has substantial business interests, objected. ASEAN, many of whose members have overlapping claims with China and which has long opposed Beijing’s island-building, likewise came up short.
Earlier this week, it was reported that ASEAN’s statement had been watered down at the request of Cambodia just days after Cambodia received $600 million of aid from Beijing. But today, the South China Morning Post cites an anonymous diplomat who says it wasn’t just Cambodia holding things up:
Most Asean countries want to stay out of the South China Sea dispute between China and the Philippines, says a diplomat with inside knowledge about the negotiations that went on before the bloc issued a joint statement on the matter this week.
That’s odd, because many Southeast Asian countries have been pushing back against China’s incursions into the South China Sea for years. Why weren’t they prepared to use the Hague ruling as leverage? Everyone has known a decision was coming for months, and there should have been a coordinated response ready to go, particularly given that the ruling was so unequivocally unfavorable to Beijing.
That that’s not what’s happening says a great deal about the inconstancy of American strategy. The U.S. couldn’t build a coalition because other countries, although worried about China, didn’t feel like they could risk upsetting Beijing. Moreover, Chinese money has peeled off enough governments that institutional foundations of world order like ASEAN and the EU can’t unite around clear principles of international law.
One reason is that the United States has itself wavered and declined to enforce even its own red lines. There has been a lot of rhetoric about the importance of Asia in American grand strategy, but actual displays of concrete commitment have only followed the rhetoric in fits and starts. There have been military agreements with Australia and the Philippines, Japan is remilitarizing with a green light from Washington, and relations have improved with Vietnam and Burma. Nevertheless, Beijing has continued to fortify its reclaimed “islands” across the region, and Washington has struggled to respond convincingly.
European and Asian countries aren’t so much breaking with America as they’re following Washington’s implicit lead. When President Obama signals that we need to be careful not to anger China because we can’t afford to imperil climate change pacts, economic deals, and nonproliferation agreements, the rest of the world gets the message. Freedom of navigation and rule of law are the pillars of the world order that makes the other deals the U.S. wants to reach with China even conceivable.
If we can’t ensure compliance with the basic rules of the road, then how can we possibly expect China to adhere to more ambitious agreements?