U.S. allies in the South China Sea

U.S. allies in the South China Sea

Can the U.S. count on its allies in the South China Sea to combat China’s increasing presence in the region?

With its artificial island-building, China has transformed the entire South China Sea into a gigantic game of weiqi, whereby it seeks to use the islands as massive stones to surround the stones (allies and partners) of its primary competitor, the U.S..

To counter this, the U.S. has recently begun freedom of navigation (FONOPS) maneuvers to defend its power projection capabilities into the theater and has requested assistance from regional partners to this end.

U.S. defense budget deficits also factor into these requests. However, conflict and security risk in the South China Sea will be especially intensified between the U.S. and China as Japan, India, and Australia are reluctant to participate directly in the FONOPS.

Japan: U.S. linchpin in Asia

As its most important ally in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. has been especially keen for Japan to join it in its FONOPS patrols.

Japan, of course, realizes the importance of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as the bulk of its energy imports transit the area and any interruption in this supply would pose both economic and geopolitical risks.

This point is driven home by Japan’s increasing military assistance to other U.S. allies in the region including the Philippines and Australia, as well as Vietnam and India.

However, Japan most likely would not consider joint naval patrols in the South China Sea in the foreseeable future for a number of reasons. First and foremost, most of its security-related bandwidth is currently occupied with issues in its immediate neighborhood —  the East China Sea.

Despite being the U.S.’s most important Asian ally, Japan is currently dealing with island dispute issues with both China and South Korea in the East China Sea, overlapping Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZs) with both states, North Korean hydrogen bomb tests, possible Taiwanese independence leanings, and now Russian circumnavigation flights.

Despite the recent Chinese economic slowdown, the traditional “Hot Economics, Cold Politics” dichotomy in the Sino-Japanese relationship still persists and combined with all of these previous issues will continue to make Japan reluctant to further antagonize China directly.

India and Australia: capabilities and rhetoric mismatch

Like Japan, India also has economic and security interests in the South China Sea as it views the region as an arena of competition with China.

However, also like Japan, its primary area of concern is its immediate geographic region, the Indian Ocean. India, having recently completed its International Fleet Review and keen to improve security ties with the U.S. in order to countenance China, is also reluctant to improve them to the point of becoming a formal U.S. ally.

Looking to play a more prominent role in Eurasian economic integration efforts, India is currently reluctant to pose an offensive challenge in the South China Sea which would jeopardize its economic ties with China.

Australia, a formal U.S. treaty ally, also has an interest in freedom of navigation as it’s surrounded by oceans on all sides and thus dependent on open sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) for its prosperity.

These open SLOCs allow Australia to continue exporting its abundant resources to China, its largest Asian trading partner. While it has supported the idea of aerial patrols in the South China Sea, it currently lacks the material capabilities of its great power counterparts, Japan and India, to effectively supplement U.S. naval patrols in the region.

Despite calls in some quarters, it iss also hesitant to challenge China directly.

Vietnam and the Philippines: China’s path of least resistance

Out of all the South China Sea island claimants besides China, Vietnam and the Philippines are perhaps pursuing the most robust courses of action, with the latter even pursuing international arbitration options.

The Philippines, an additional U.S. treaty ally but militarily weak, has been among the more enthusiastic local states with respect to the U.S.’s re-balance strategy. Vietnam is a bit stronger as it pursues a multi-vector foreign policy strategy and continues to purchase arms from many competing suppliers, including Russia.

Despite being shown more interest by the U.S. to balance China, neither Vietnam nor the Philippines is a great power unto itself, unlike Japan and India.

This naturally invites more Chinese assertiveness into the South China Sea. Because of all of these factors, neither claimant is in a position to actively pursue joint U.S. naval patrols in the region at this time.

Additionally, they must factor in increasing Chinese economic ties into their decision-making processes. Summarily, the lack of a capable and willing partner for the U.S. in its South China Sea FONOPS maneuvers combined with the reliance of partners on Chinese economic linkages will tend to make the U.S. do most of the initial heavy lifting in this endeavor.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is a U.S. Foreign Policy Analyst & Project Manager with Bright Group Consulting, where he provides confidential geopolitical forecasting services regarding various aspects of U.S.-China foreign policy. Additionally, he is an Expert | Geopolitical Intelligence with RANE, an information and advisory services company that connects business leaders to critical risk insights and expertise. He is also an Analyst with the Foreign Policy Association where he writes blogs on foreign policy analysis. As a Senior Analyst and Editor with Global Risk Insights, he provides analysis on political risk & geopolitics. Lastly, he is a Writer for Geopoliticalmonitor Intelligence Corporation, an international intelligence publication which provides comprehensive geopolitical analysis. Having previously consulted in Ukraine, his area of focus is U.S.-Russia relations. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.