Esper’s trip to Asia yields little

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/11/21 20:48:42

Photo: IC

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has tried to drive a wedge between Asian countries and China during his recent visit to the region. During his meeting with defense ministers of ASEAN countries, he asked ASEAN countries to be wary of China's manipulation of the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC), which however is a joint effort between the bloc and China. In the Philippines, he further advocated that the US-Philippines mutual defense treaty applies to the South China Sea and encouraged the Philippines to be openly tough on China. On a visit to Hanoi, he announced that the US is providing Vietnam with a surplus American ship for its coast guard.

Esper called on regional countries to unite with the US to put pressure on China. We believe that the US Secretary of Defense will certainly understand it when he leaves. He gained little as the countries he visited only paid lip service to him.

Of course, Vietnam welcomes the US decision to give it a free ship. But Vietnam will not use the vessel to run into a Chinese ship. Manila also welcomes the US' statements that support the country, but the Philippines will not think that it has the resources to provoke China and start fighting in the South China Sea for US interests. 

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea continue, but their intensity has mitigated from previous years, and their role in regional relations has become less crucial. The rationality of managing territorial disputes and making economic cooperation a central theme in the region is on the rise. There have been frictions between China, Vietnam and the Philippines this year, but they have not worsened because the parties do not want these rows to seriously impact the general atmosphere of regional friendship and cooperation.

It is outside powers that want the South China Sea dispute to stay hot. To put it bluntly, it is the US that wants to raise more waves in the South China Sea through interference and influence. The other powers are Washington's minions. But it is hard to mobilize Southeast Asian countries to do the US' bidding against China, and it is becoming all the more difficult. 

The ASEAN countries welcome the US to the South China Sea and also would like to see the US and China compete in the South China Sea, because it will help maximize their benefits. But they will refuse to take sides between China and the US, and they do not want the game between the two giants to escalate into a bitter confrontation, which will mean huge risk to them.

The more the US confronts China and tries to use its neighbors, the more it will find its ability falls short of its ambition in the South China Sea. These countries accept US' gift, but won't really want to do its bidding.

Washington thinks it could rope in Southeast Asian countries to confront China by using Indo-Pacific strategy, giving several ships and offering empty promises. Are those countries so foolish?

Even Esper is concerned about establishing reliable mechanisms for managing crises and reducing risks between the US and China, which country would want to have an uncertain relationship with China?

As Asia becomes more mature, the desire and consensus of all parties to jointly manage differences is getting stronger. The US must not overestimate its ability to disrupt Asia by playing tricks. It will get tired and face disappointment.

Posted in: EDITORIAL

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