Rex Tillerson, picked by US President-elect Donald Trump to be secretary of state, stirred up a hornet’s nest when he condemned Chinese actions in the South China Sea, comparing the construction of artificial islands in the disputed waters with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and saying that China’s access to the islands “is not going to be allowed”.
As to how this would be done, he said: “The way we’ve got to deal with this is we’ve got to show backup in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia.”
Just who are these traditional allies? Why, the Philippines and Thailand, of course.
Thailand was condemned by the United States when a coup in 2014 installed a military junta. Thailand enjoys close relations with China and is unlikely to join any embargo against China.
As for the Philippines, its president, Rodrigo Duterte, has taken a hostile stance towards the US since his inauguration last June. In October, while visiting China, he declared his “separation” from the US.
This came, surprisingly, after the Philippines scored a sweeping victory in its arbitration case with China, brought in 2013 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
After three years of costly efforts, Manila won on most points but China refused to recognize the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
So all Manila got was a moral victory. Duterte then had to decide his future course. The US, while backing the Philippines in its arbitration bid, had also been careful not to be sucked into a war with China.
In 1995, Mischief Reef, claimed by the Philippines, was taken over by China. Manila was furious but ultimately accepted that there was not much that it could do about it.
Now, China has built an artificial island on the reef.
Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, adopted a strong pro-Philippine stance and even referred to the body of water in which disputed reefs lie as not the South China Sea but the West Philippine Sea. But rhetoric only goes so far.
In 2012, during a China-Philippines standoff lasting several weeks at Scarborough Shoal, claimed by both countries, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario pointedly recalled that Clinton had said that the US “will honor its treaty obligations to the Philippines”.
However, the next day, the State Department urged that “diplomatic efforts be used to resolve the current situation”.
An unnamed American official was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “I don’t think we’d allow the US to get dragged into a conflict over fish or over a rock.”
That was a wake-up call for the Philippines. America’s commitment to the country’s security wasn’t what Manila had thought it was.
It was after China took control of the shoal that the Philippines decided to take its case to the arbitral tribunal, citing the law of the sea.
Before Duterte assumed the presidency on June 30, the American ambassador, Philip Goldberg, paid him a courtesy call.
Quite naturally, they talked about China and, according to the Philippine leader, he asked the ambassador: “Are you with us? Or are you not with us?”
According to Duterte, the ambassador replied that the US would help if the Philippines was “attacked”.
Shortly afterward, Duterte assumed the presidency and the Hague-based tribunal issued its judgment.
The Philippines had “won” but had little to show for the victory. China was still next door and the US was far away, and, clearly, unwilling to take on the bully.
Perhaps it was the realization that, from a practical standpoint, its alliance with the US didn’t mean what Manila hoped it meant that Duterte decided that the wiser course was to make peace with China.
Now, without the Philippines, the US has little room for maneuver in the South China Sea.
Duterte has threatened to nullify the agreement that his predecessor had signed to give the US access to five military bases.
Without such facilities, any US military activity would be severely hobbled.
So far, China’s reaction to Tillerson has been mild. Asked whether American use of force would be legal, a foreign ministry spokesman said that “we do not take hypothetical questions”.
The mild Chinese reaction has been attributed to a desire for good relations with the Trump administration.
But perhaps there is another reason as well: knowledge that even if Tillerson is confirmed as secretary of state, there is little the US can do about the islands.
Without strong allies, the US cannot possibly implement Tillerson’s policy of keeping China off these man-made Chinese islands.
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