Earlier this month, the United States, Japan, India, and the Philippines engaged in what amounted to a quadrilateral presence operation in the South China Sea. Though the engagement reinforced the ongoing minilateral activities between Indo-Pacific countries in the South China Sea and these are not without significance, such activities also need to be kept in perspective relative to the broader structural dynamics that continue to be at play.
As I have noted before in these pages, China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea in recent years has continued to raise concerns among a range of actors to varying degrees and on several fronts. These include not just claimant states with which Beijing has outstanding disputes with – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – but also other countries in the wider region and actors such as the United States because of the broader effects on regional stability and principles such as the freedom of navigation. As these dynamics have played out, there have been a range of measures undertaken by countries to manage the ongoing situation in the South China Sea, be it developing their own military capabilities, pursuing forms of diplomatic accommodation with China, or working with other like-minded countries to respond, including through presence operations.
A case in point was last week when we saw the United States, India, Japan, and the Philippines engage in what effectively constituted a quadrilateral presence operation in the South China Sea. Per a release issued by the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, six warships from these countries transited through disputed international waters in the South China Sea, with a range of operations including formation exercises, communication drills, passenger transfers, and a leadership exchange.
Engagements such as the one we saw last week are not without significance. With respect to U.S. policy, as the U.S. Navy noted, it is an example of how the United States is working with like-minded navies to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific as part of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIPs) we have seen materialize under U.S. President Donald Trump. With the Pentagon expected to divulge more specifics on the defense aspect of FOIPs at this year’s iteration of the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore in just a few weeks, engagements such as these are tangible demonstrations of what the United States is doing with other partners in the region.
With respect to the South China Sea more generally, such engagements can help underscore the fact there are at least a few Asian states who are willing to not only stand up for ideals at play in the South China Sea such as freedom of navigation, but also to act on it as well by themselves and in concert with other like-minded partners. That not only reinforces regional support for such principles, but also undermines China’s hackneyed narrative that such acts are externally imposed by outside parties including the United States.
Lastly, with respect to minilateralism more generally, such presence operations help redistribute the disproportionate focus often placed on the Quad and put the emphasis more appropriately on the various configurations of partnerships between countries with similar interests in the Indo-Pacific. Though there is a tendency for the headlines to focus on minilateralism as regularized arrangements between like-minded states, such as trilaterals or Asia’s Quad, ad-hoc, issue-based minilateral activities can at times be just as important manifestations of this and have their own utility as well, especially in a context like the South China Sea.
Yet just as we ought not to understate the significance of minilateralism in the South China Sea, we also ought not to overstate it either. First and most obviously, such minilateral opportunities do not change the worrying structural dynamics that continue to be evident in the South China Sea today, including a military balance that remains significantly in China’s favor, China’s increasing ability and willingness to use a range of actions to enforce its expansive claims at the expense of others, and the lack of costs that have been imposed on Beijing for its actions to date by Southeast Asian states as well as by other actors including the United States. In this respect, it is worth noting that despite the focus on moves such as U.S. freedom of navigation operations and presence operations by a range of actors, China’s overall South China Sea approach as well as concerning manifestations of it such as militarizing the South China Sea have continued.
Second, despite the advent of some minilateral opportunities in the South China Sea over the past few years, the gains are still quite modest and well below what one might have expected given China’s actions as well as the context following the consequential arbitral tribunal ruling in 2016. For instance, while the Philippines’ inclusion in the latest presence operation was notable, that should not detract from the fact that relative to the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III, Philippine South China Sea policy under President Rodrigo Duterte has thus far been conducted with much more caution about entering into such engagements while at the same time also entertaining far riskier propositions with China in the service of a broader engagement policy. The modest gains for South China Sea minilateralism are also far from just an issue for the Philippines, with other Southeast Asian states being cautious as well about engaging in such operations to varying degrees due to a range of reasons, and ASEAN itself being divided from a multilateral perspective due to a range of reasons, whether it be fear of coercion by China abroad or their own tendency to adopt more domestic-focused foreign policies.
Third and finally, these minilateral engagements also detract from the reality of continued regional uncertainty around arguably the single biggest variable with respect to South China Sea dynamics: the role of the United States. Credit is undoubtedly due to the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump for a tougher approach towards Chinese conduct in the South China Sea and several useful actions, including the increasing tempo of freedom of navigation operations, the enhanced focus on presence operations with allies and partners, and some limited cost imposition measures such as disinviting Beijing from the Rim of the Pacific Exercises (RIMPAC). But while these actions have value, in and of themselves they are insufficient to erase lingering doubts about the extent to which the United States is committed to the South China Sea and that Washington now has a new and sustainable strategy for addressing the issue that will endure for the rest of this administration amid broader uncertainties about U.S. foreign policy in general and U.S. China policy more specifically.
All this is not to dismiss or diminish the significance of presence operations and other measures with respect to their effect on ongoing developments in the South China Sea. But it is to reinforce the point that as we continue to get occasional headlines about individual events related to the South China Sea, it is important to keep them in perspective relative to the broader trends at play that will continue to shape the decisions countries will undertake now and into the future.