Lying in the Western Pacific Ocean and sheltering a plethora of rich oil and natural gas reserves beneath its seabed, the South China Sea region has become the newest battleground between the superpowers – United States of America and China.
Owing to its tremendous economic and geostrategic importance, with one-third of the globe’s maritime shipping passing through it to contribute an annual trade of over US $3 trillion, Beijing has latched on to its century-old belief of claiming most of the region.
However, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo along with Defense Secretary Mark Esper have spearheaded President Donald Trump’s revolution against China’s increasing belligerence in laying claims to territories outside its dominion and have called on for allies to join them in the revolution.
Now with the ever-increasing presence of American and Chinese warships and bombers in the region near that of Taiwan, there is a growing possibility of a war among the two, leaving no Southeast Asian country any option but to pick one side.
One of the countries is the Philippines which has had a military alliance with the US for the last 70 years. At the moment, the archipelagic country stands as its only treaty ally which has a direct claim on territory in the disputed waters.
“Trump knows that the Philippines is a strategic ally and it cannot afford to lose the Philippines against China,” said Robin Michael Garcia, CEO & chief analyst at WR Numero Research.
Despite President Rodrigo Duterte attempts to have closer ties with his Beijing since taking office four years ago, Philippines is likely to side with Washington in any potential conflict between the two.
The major reason is due to the two nations signing the Mutual Defence Treaty back in 1951, under which the two sides are committed to support each other in the event either is attacked by an external force.
According to a senior Philippine military official – “We can remain neutral (in a war), but if China attacks the US, we are obliged to help the US,”
The Philippine planners have drawn up scenarios in case of a US-China war, but these are secret.”
However, according to Australia-based defence analyst, Max Montero, the Philippine military still has a way to go under it fulfils its potential of aiding the US.
“The purpose of the armed forces modernisation programme was to build a minimum credible defence posture, enough to fight smaller conflicts with peer countries like Malaysia, and to delay the advance of a more powerful opponent like China.”
While the Philippines might indeed join with the US against Beijing’s expansionist approach, one nation that might still be tricky for President Trump or his potential successor Joe Biden, would be Singapore.
According to Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst of Rand Corporation, China’s excellent bilateral relationship with Singapore might go against Washington’s interests.
“Although Singapore still greatly supports US objectives and the US can do all kinds of things militarily in Singapore, now there is a China-Singapore defence agreement as well that allows China access to Singapore, not to the same extent that the US has, but the door is now open,”
Some of the statements coming out of Singapore recently suggest it is increasingly uncomfortable with US behaviour in the Indo-Pacific.”
However, according to a former member of the Singapore Defence Ministry, David Boey, the US could replicate former President George Bush’s approach in forcing Singapore’s resolve under which Singapore was forced to take an unambiguous stand post the 9/11 attacks in the US.
“Washington has many levers to pull, particularly with the Singapore Armed Forces (which is) so heavily equipped with American armaments.”
Another country which is sandwiched between the ongoing rift between the two superpowers is Thailand, which despite being US’ treaty ally in Southeast Asia, has not enjoyed flourishing relations with the Pentagon.
Despite that, Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, is of the mind that the country could still opt in favour of the western nation.
“Although US-Thailand relations have deteriorated somewhat in recent years, I do think that, if it came to an actual conflict, then Thailand would, at least at this point, still offer basing and berthing rights to the US,”
However, I do think this could change, and whether Thailand offered basing rights also would depend in part on the nature of the US-China conflict, whether it was a skirmish in the South China Sea, for instance, or something larger.”
One nation whose direct interests are affected by what happens between China and the US is India, which is currently entangled in a five-month-long military stand-off with Beijing in the eastern Ladakh region.
According to Rudroneel Ghosh, writing for the Times of India, there is a higher sense of cooperation between New Delhi and Washington than it is with Beijing, who have been close to Modi’s rivals Pakistan.
“As far as the US is concerned, there is definitely greater synergy today between the Indian and American leaderships. US President Donald Trump’s visit to India in February exemplified this. Plus, both the political dispensations in New Delhi and Washington have a right-wing orientation, creating scope for affinity,”
Additionally, there are several strategic areas where Indian and American interests have been congruent over the last few years. These include approaches to dealing with terrorism emanating from Pakistan and freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region. In short, the points of cooperation between India and the US are much more than those between India and China.”
However, according to Nitin J Ticku, an expert with the EurAsian Times, if a war breaks out between the US and China over Taiwan, New Delhi is bound to stay neutral despite all the hostilities at the border as the Indian government would not want to jeopardize its trade ties with Beijing at any cost. India will, however, covertly support the US.
While many nations despite having liked to stay neutral amid the messy brawl between the US and China, that might be soon upon the South China Sea Region, according to experts, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) might still be able to uphold the pressure piled by the two nations.
According to Philip Heijmans, writing for the Bloomberg Quint,
“Asian powers are in a position to avoid choosing between the U.S. and China as they build deeper ties with each other amid a battle for influence between the world’s two biggest economies,”
The 10-nation bloc that makes up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has a strategy of non-alignment at the core of its foreign policy, and has maintained strategic autonomy while not becoming too dependent on either the U.S. or China.”