The South China Sea, in a surprise for people who mindlessly repeat the talking point that the SCS is an indispensable waterway handling trillions of dollars of trade, is eminently dispensable to America and its allies.
The U.S. itself has zero standing in the South China Sea to confront China directly, unless the PRC attacks an American warship, which is definitely not part of the PRC game plan.
The US toolkit is pretty much a matter of Freedom of Navigations operations a.k.a. FONOPS a.k.a. sailing around the PRC’s island holdings and maritime claims provocatively with the hope that China will do something stupid. Which, to date, it hasn’t done.
Keeping the pot boiling in the South China Sea is seen as a golden opportunity for the United States to push the PRC into a corner, wedge official/military and public opinion in places like Vietnam and the Philippines away from China and toward the United States, and shift the regional narrative away from the economic/money talks discourse that advantages to China to the military/weapons work approach that is very much in Uncle Sam's wheelhouse.
Interestingly, though it is fashionable to regard Barack Obama as the paragon of modern American presidents, especially compared to the current incumbent, in China hawk circles he is detested as the mushy moderate guy who gave away the South China Sea to China by backing off from Clinton's thumb-in-the-eye approach during his second term.
The presidency of Hillary Clinton and her more muscular China policy was a much anticipated event, I think, anticipated also in the sense that a China hawk core shouldered aside the Obama-friendly moderates in the DoD and IndoPacom and kicked off the first stage of a planned multi-decade China rollback strategy pretty near the beginning of Obama's second term.
In particular, the U.S. has been working and working and working to create a mechanism to bring US force to bear in the SCS via the Philippines—and the Philippines' rather cooperative military apparatus headed by Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana.
Continuing with this theme, the head of Team America in the Philippines—Alberto del Rosario, ex Secretary of State & executor of the UNCLOS lawfare strategy that yielded the Hague tribunal decision—went the extra mile by urging the indictment of Chinese supremo Xi Jinping before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for China’s harming the livelihood of Philippine fisherfolk.
Where does this leave us?
May 15 2019
Responding to a French report, the Chinese Ministry of Defense allegedly stated at a press conference that a French warship had "illegally entered China's territorial waters" on April 7.
"The Chinese military sent warships in accordance with the law, in order to identify the French ship, and warn it to sail away,"
But let’s not forget factor 3: the gravy!
Gravy meaning the beautifully titled Asia Reassurance Initiative Act or ARIA, which is basically a $1.5 billion dollar slush fund for securing the pro-US sentiments of Asian military types at a time when Chinese money is pretty much seducing everyone else.
Or as Heydarian puts it:
Objective 4 is probably the most important one: creating political difficulties for Duterte and his pro China tilt.
Here’s Heydarian again:
And the Duterte vs. Lorenzana dynamic is beginning to play out.
Team Duterte was content with Pompeo’s statement and saw no need to go further and explore treaty revision.
As the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs put it:
Good luck with that:
The pro-US team is going to make sure that a more muscular pro-US policy will guide the next administration in diplomacy and trade and economics, as well as military affairs.
There are signs that the Philippine bureaucracy are slowwalking Chinese projects to frustrate Duterte and I will be very surprised if the PRC is able to get very far in its dreams of jointly developing the Reed Bank oilfield with the Philippines.
As Secretary Pompeo made it clear, Philippine energy projects are a piece of juicy meat that the United States is very interested in:
Energy is certainly one area in which the United States is eager to build new cooperation in the region as well. Demand for energy in Asia is going to skyrocket in the coming years, and American companies are poised to invest billions in the region. They’re the best partners to deliver reliable, secure, and affordable supplies of energy.
A pivot back toward America away from China and deeper into security cooperation with the United States is in the cards for the post-Duterte Philippines.
A pro-US Philippines restores to the United States a key piece of the China containment puzzle it’s been lacking: a frontline anti-China state on the South China Sea.
If a post Duterte administration returns to the US fold, look for renewed emphasis on the Philippines arbitration victory at the Hague, a possible demand that the PRC vacate its illegal manmade island at Mischief Reef, US protection for offshore oil exploration at Reed Bank and—who knows—maybe a campaign to push into Scarborough Shoal?
If, by the way, you think this is a pure Philippine initiative, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you for a very cheap price.
Lorenzana is playing tag team with the United States on treaty review. Pompeo’s public remarks were a way to help Lorenzana keep the pot boiling without the US openly going against Duterte.
Zack Cooper, the guy whose tweet I quoted at the top of the show saying Pompeo’s statement was “an extremely significant policy shift”?
He went on to tweet: “A lot of people have pushed for this change (myself included)”.
In addition to working at the American Enterprise Institute and CSIS, Cooper is also an associate at Armitage International.
Armitage International is, as China Watch viewers know or should know, China hawk central within the Washington Beltway. Randy Schriver, who does the China rollback strategizing at the Pentagon as an assistant secretary of defense for Pacific and Asian security affairs, co-founded Armitage International together with legendary power-lifting muscular Asianist Richard Armitage.
So, I think Team China Hawk is coordinating with Lorenzana, not just responding, and US fingerprints are all over this move.
A high level US team will visit the Philippines in a few weeks to talk turkey and, I guess, dangle ARIA bucks in front of the Philippine defense establishment.
Reclaiming the Philippines for Team USA is the Big One for the United States in Southeast Asia. I suspect that the fact that Duterte’s going to term out in 2022 is the main factor in the fact that the U.S. hasn’t orchestrated a coup against him yet.
Putting the United States in harms way to protect Philippine claims against the People’s Republic of China has its price, of course. And Richard Heydarian is ready to propose that price:
... Although the administration described the patrol of the Maddox and Turner Joy as routine but prepared for attack, there is considerable evidence that the objective of the patrol was to provoke the North Vietnamese and then to bloody them if they responded to the provocation.