Freedom of navigation operations conducted by the US and its allies in the South China Sea have heightened the dilemma faced by Southeast Asian nations caught between China and the United States, diplomatic sources and observers have said.
Many say that the more frequent naval operations by the US and its allies in the contested waters may help reinforce international rules in the face of China’s military construction programme in the disputed waters.
But they are not convinced that the operations will be enough to deter China’s aggressive territorial claims and smaller countries fear they may pay a price for the US actions.
“Claimant nations other than China are wary of Beijing’s activities in the area,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“This concern certainly motivates them to encourage the continued presence of friendly, countervailing powers that can hopefully check Beijing’s activities and at least, if not roll back on those activities, to ensure that Beijing is deterred enough to not up the ante with more drastic, escalatory actions aimed at further altering the status quo in the South China Sea.”
An Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the escalating rivalry between China and the US was making it more difficult for his country to remain neutral between the two powers.
“We can’t afford to antagonise China. We don’t want to be stuck in the middle and be engulfed by the two giants,” the diplomat said.
The US remains the most powerful military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, but its activities in the South China Sea mainly take the form of what it calls freedom of navigation operations, in which its warships sail near islands or features claimed by China to indicate its view that they remain international waters.