China needs a NATO-like regional security bloc

Adriel Kasonta

Whether we like it or not, the coming years will be dominated by the rivalry between the US and China, with the current hegemon calling it “the biggest geopolitical test” of the century.

President Joe Biden himself – although he was expected to be less hostile toward the Middle Kingdom than his predecessor Donald Trump – has labeled Beijing as Washington’s prime adversary.

He promised in a February speech at the State Department to “confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance” – a message he repeated later the same month to European audience at the Group of Seven Summit and the Munich Security Conference.

In recent months, the Biden administration has visibly increased its focus on the Indo-Pacific region, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman both visiting the area. Moreover, Secretary of State Antony Blinken held several e-meetings with Southeast Asian politicians this month.

Understandably, diverting attention and resources to the region has become a policy of the new US administration, as it is in the process of moving from old security preoccupations to new ones. This has been marked by the recent withdrawal of the country’s forces from Afghanistan and Vice-President Kamala Harris’ trip to Southeast Asia last week.

“Southeast Asia is going to be a very, very critical arena of that [the US and Chinese] competition,” said Kishore Mahbubani during his commentary for the CNBC program Street Signs Asia last Wednesday. “So clearly the visit of Vice-President Kamala Harris is part of the contest between United States and China,” the prominent former Singaporean diplomat added.

Indeed, Southeast Asia, which lies in the heart of Indo-Pacific region, was in the last few years caught in the middle as the rivalry between the US and China intensifies, and Harris’ visit to Singapore and Vietnam only confirmed this fact.

On August 23, Kamala Harris visited Changi Naval Base, where she spoke to sailors aboard the USS Tulsa littoral combat ship, in a country that serves as the anchor of the American presence in the region.

Harris emphasized the significance of Southeast Asia to US defense and its economy, as the region represents America’s fourth-largest export market.

The VP told the sailors that “a big part of the history of the 21st century will be written about this very region,”adding that “it is in our vital interest to stand united with our allies and our partners in Southeast Asia in defense of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” In fact, Singapore is home to the biggest port in Southeast Asia.

Meeting the same day with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Halimah Yacob, Harris discussed the importance of the “rules-based international order” and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, and achieved security agreements that support the US presence in the region through “rotational deployments of US P-8 aircraft and littoral combat ships to Singapore,” as a White House fact sheet states.

Both sides highlighted the strong Singapore-US defense relationship, secured by the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding Regarding United States Use of Facilities in Singapore, the 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement, which acknowledged Singapore as a Major Security Cooperation Partner, and the 2015 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which broadened defense cooperation in traditional and non-conventional security areas, and introduced new areas of collaboration, including cybersecurity and biosecurity.

Importantly, the 2019 Protocol of Amendment to the 1990 MoU authorized extended US military access to Singapore’s air and naval bases for another 15 years.

On August 24, also in Singapore, Harris referred to her visit at the naval base in her remarks at the Gardens by the Bay nature park and labeled it as a “statement of America’s security commitment to this region.”

She also mentioned freedom of navigation as part of the US vision for the region. Furthermore, Harris accused Beijing of coercion and intimidation to back unlawful claims in the South China Sea, her most pointed comments on China during her visit to Southeast Asia.

“These unlawful claims have been rejected by the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision, and Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations,” said the US vice-president, referring to an international tribunal’s ruling over China’s claims in The Hague.

It is worth noting that the South China Sea – which is crossed by vital commercial shipping lanes where trillions of dollars of world trade pass through each year and contains gas fields and rich fishing grounds – has competing claims by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

China dismissed the Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal’s decision and has stood by its claim to most of the waters within a so-called nine-dash line on its maps.

Beijing has also established military presence on artificial islands in the waters, and perceives the US Navy’s “freedom of navigation” operations as detrimental to promotion of peace and stability in the region. In fact, the very concept comes from the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Article 87.1), but Washington has failed to ratify UNCLOS.

Despite declaring that Asia will not have to pick sides between the US and China, Harris asked Vietnam to back Washington against China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea during her meeting with Vietnamese President Ngyuen Xuan Phuc on August 25, and expressed support for sending an additional US Coast Guard cutter to the country to help defend its security interests in the disputed waterway.

She also embraced raising the relationship with Vietnam from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic one.

“We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” Harris said in her opening remarks at the meeting with the Vietnamese president. She further added that the US would “maintain a strong presence in the South China Sea” to challenge China.

Despite claiming otherwise, the US is clearly looking to form an anti-China coalition under its leadership in Asia. Washington risks containing not only China, but also countries like Japan and South Korea, which are highly suspicious of each other. This may not only lead to free-riding, but also lack of desire to resist China by countries that heavily depend on its economic heft.

Considering the geographic space between coalition members and the US, the latter would be required to expend a lot of effort to manage a containment strategy in a situation where countries in the region would most probably lean toward a hedging strategy.

What we have to bear in mind in the case of China is that the country has no security guarantees, which significantly increases the country’s motivation to expand the size of its own military even more.

Furthermore, the mentioned circumstances create a humiliating environment in Beijing’s own back yard, where a foreign power is willing not only to pit China’s neighbors against it, but routinely sends its warships to the Middle Kingdom’s coast in an attempt to suffocate even the slightest effort by China to exert strategic influence in its immediate neighborhood.

The global military presence of the US provides little space for China to earn well-deserved status, and the country would hardly increase its self-respect by outsourcing responsibility for keeping its own back yard secure to an increasingly hostile foreign actor from far outside the neighborhood.

With this in mind, Beijing would be well advised to do its best to persuade its neighbors to start thinking of an institutionalized security arrangement in Asia similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with a potential to provide credible security guarantees by China in an attempt to maintain regional peace and stability, without suspicious interference from outside.

“Under such circumstances,” as Oliver Stuenkel argues in his book Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order, “even the announcement of a Chinese Monroe Doctrine would not necessarily lead to a conflict,” as after all, only ill birds foul their own nest.