Trans-Pacific View

Asia Reassurance Initiative Act: A Republican Vision for Engaging Southeast Asia

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Trans-Pacific View

Asia Reassurance Initiative Act: A Republican Vision for Engaging Southeast Asia

Can the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act find strategic ballast?

Asia Reassurance Initiative Act: A Republican Vision for Engaging Southeast Asia
Credit: YouTube screen capture via CSIS

On July 18, Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) delivered the keynote address at the seventh international conference on the South China Sea hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

Gardner is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cyber Security. Under Gardner’s leadership, the Subcommittee has held three hearings to gather information and analysis to support his legislative initiative, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA). The first hearing, held in late March, focused on growing security challenges such as North Korea, the South China Sea, and terrorism in Southeast Asia. The theme of the second hearing, held in May, examined the importance of U.S. economic leadership in Asia. The third hearing, held in July, considered promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific.

Gardner’s keynote address is a welcome sign that legislators in Washington are thinking seriously about U.S. policy in Southeast Asia under the Trump administration. Gardner proposed three major goals for U.S. policy. They are a good starting point but a coherent U.S. strategy toward the Indo-Pacific region still remains elusive.

Gardner opened his address by offering assurance to the United States’ “jittery allies after years of neglect.” This swipe at the Obama administration was not entirely accurate.

Under President Barack Obama, U.S. alliance relations with the Philippines were raised to new levels of interaction through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, including U.S. rotational access to bases and facilities in the Philippines. Singapore, a strategic partner, permitted the United States to station two more Littoral Combat Ships for patrols in the South China Sea.

U.S.-Vietnam defense cooperation was stepped up through a Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations signed in 2015 and the lifting of the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations, otherwise known as the arms embargo, during Obama’s visit to Hanoi in May 2016.

The Obama administration was also active in bringing protracted negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to a successful conclusion.

The main failure of the Obama administration was not to stand up strongly enough when it became clear that China was implementing a master plan to dominate the South China Sea through the construction of seven artificial islands. As Admiral Harry Harris noted in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 1, the artificial islands “support long-range weapons emplacements, fighter aircraft hangars, radar towers and barracks for their troops. China’s militarization of the South China Sea is real.”

Gardner’s keynote address was divided into four parts. He opened by identifying the “coming nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula” as “the most urgent challenge for U.S. policy in the region.” He reinforced Trump’s China-centric approach by noting “the road to peacefully stopping Pyongyang undoubtedly lies through Beijing.” The senator advocated a policy of “maximum pressure,” including the invocation of further sanctions against commercial entities that do business with North Korea.

Gardner concluded this section by arguing that “Beijing must be made to choose whether it wants to work with the United States as a responsible leader to stop Pyongyang – or bear consequences of keeping him [Kim Jong-un] in power.”

In the next section of his keynote address, Gardner turned his attention to maritime security and escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Here he missed an opportunity to link the North Korean crisis with the South China Sea, the focus of the CSIS conference.

How should the United States approach these two interrelated security challenges? Gardner called for a “consistent and assertive diplomatic engagement with China” on the South China Sea in contrast to his more robust approach to China on the North Korean issue. China’s inaction with North Korea contributed to the present crisis. And China actions in the South China Sea have raised tensions and challenged U.S. national interests.

What is needed is a strategic policy framework for dealing with China on both issues. Without a comprehensive strategy regional states are less likely to be assured that the Trump administration won’t pursue a transactional approach, rewarding China for pressure on North Korea by going soft on China in the South China Sea.

In his discussion of the South China Sea, Gardner, like the Obama administration, used the term “land reclamation” to describe China’s construction of artificial islands. This description is inaccurate and misleading. It is inaccurate because it suggests that China is restoring a land feature to its previous condition. None of the Chinese-occupied features was an island that lost soil due to erosion by wind or waves. China’s artificial islands were constructed by destroying coral reefs and gouging the seabed for fill.

Gardner’s discussion of the South China Sea was all the more remarkable for its omission of any mention of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN not only seeks centrality in the region’s security architecture but it is currently engaged in discussions with China on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. It is clear from past U.S. diplomatic initiatives that if the Unites States pursues policies that get ahead of ASEAN, or fails to consult with ASEAN members first, these policies will remain dead in the water.

Most of Gardner’s prescriptions repeat policies that were part and parcel of Obama’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. The senator calls for engaging with allies. As noted, U.S. alliance relations were robust under Obama. Gardner proposes assisting the Philippines with maritime domain awareness; this was a central component of U.S. assistance under Obama. The essential point is that Gardner did not address is how to stop and reverse the growing estrangement in alliance relations initiated by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Later in his presentation, Gardner mentions human rights but there is no mention of the extra-judicial killing of suspected drug traffickers in the Philippines promoted by Duterte.

Gardner, like the Obama administration, advocates conducting freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) patrols. FONOPs are designed to challenge China’s (and other countries’) excessive maritime claims, but these patrols are largely irrelevant because the United States is not addressing the central issue. China has not promulgated baselines around any of its artificial islands in the Spratlys. These are a prerequisite to determining a 12 nautical mile (nm) territorial sea. The United States is splitting legal hairs when it sails within 12 nm of an artificial island.

The central issue is China’s challenge to FONOPs on the grounds that they threaten China’s security. China routinely warns off military aircraft for entering a “military alert zone.” This is an expansive claim with no basis in international law. However, if China interferes with U.S. FONOPs, the United States would be unable to use the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for legal redress, as Washington has never ratified the convention. Gardner’s keynote does not mention whether he supports the early ratification of UNCLOS.

Gardner called for U.S. allies such as Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom to join U.S. FONOPs. This is a good suggestion for two reasons. First, as maritime powers the United States and its allies should challenge China’s imposition of a “military alert zone” over the Spratlys. Second, if China attempted to interfere with freedom of navigation patrols by Australian or Japanese warships operating with the U.S. Navy, for example, these countries could take legal action under UNCLOS because they have ratified the treaty.

Gardner also argues that negotiations for a Code of Conduct “must start with the Hague ruling, which invalidated the so-called ‘nine-dash line.’” This is a decision that ASEAN should make. The United States could backstop ASEAN by conducting FONOPs and overflights across the South China Sea and the Spratlys in particular to demonstrate that Washington does not recognize the nine-dash line claim. This would be a modification of the current official rational for freedom of navigation missions. The purpose of challenging China’s nine-dash line should be made explicit.

Gardner is on sound ground in advocating that “urgent steps” must be taken “to rebuild our military, so we can enhance our defense posture in the region.”

Gardner’s third section addressed the threat of “the rising tide of Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia.” He correctly advocates a significant increase in “military, intelligence, and counterterrorism cooperation with the governments of the region.” He presciently observes:

When U.S. leadership wanes, or even the perception of U.S. leadership is waning, it undoubtedly empowers bad actors and constrains the political space for many nations to make choices that comport with U.S. values and interests.

Gardner concluded his keynote by proposing a new legislative initiative, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA). U.S. reassurance is needed not because of Obama’s “flawed ‘Asia rebalance’ policy” as the senator argued, but because of candidate Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy, his criticism of U.S. allies Japan and South Korea during the presidential election campaign, and his withdrawal from the TPP on his first day as president.

ARIA has three components: strengthening U.S. security commitments to its allies; promoting economic engagement and securing a U.S. market access in the Asia-Pacific; and promoting democracy, human rights, and transparency. Gardner left unexplained how these three goals will be integrated into a coherent strategy. But they are important first steps and should be given bipartisan support. ARIA should include a fourth goal – the expeditious completion of the Trump administration’s belated U.S. National Security Strategy mandated by Congress.