PacNet #65 – To change Taiwan’s conscription system, change the culture

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Taiwanese polls indicated that, should the People’s Republic of China attack Taiwan, 74% of Taiwanese citizens were willing to defend the island. However, the question is not if they will fight, but how prepared they are.

In Taiwan, all men are conscripted into the military, but the period of service has been shortened in recent decades, from the original two years to one year (as of 2008) and now—since 2018—to just four months.

Yet, with the Ukraine invasion and the Chinese military drills following Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan, the reality of war is inching closer. Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said in late March that Taiwan is considering extending the compulsory military service.

If Taiwan is truly committed to defending itself against the People’s Liberation Army, discussions should not only consider duration, but must also reform the activities associated with conscription.

A shared pessimism, a fractured relationship

To learn more, I spoke to young Taiwanese men on their experiences in the military and the glaring problems in Taiwan’s defense. The interviewees included men who served the four months of military service, but also those who completed the 12-day replacement service—an alternative option for men who have physical or mental health issues, dependent families, and low-income households. Replacement soldier service is fairly common: in 2021, 17% of men from Kaohsiung City enlisted in the replacement service instead of the standing military reserve service.

Within this cohort, there is a shared sense of pessimism. “If we had to be on the frontlines, we definitely did not have enough preparation. People just didn’t take it seriously,” one said—a sentiment that all the men seemed to share about their compatriots.

Where did this “unseriousness” toward conscription arise and how does Taiwanese society reinforce it? There are some fixable but neglected problems reflected by my interviewees: broken practice equipment, 50-year-old guns, and prolonged periods of sitting around, doing nothing. Society as a whole also does not prioritize military readiness. One of the men reflected: “The way people talk about the military just doesn’t feel that serious. People liken it to summer camp, or something to do between summers in college. If you took it seriously, it’s almost funny.”

For young Taiwanese men in the military, there is a jarring cognitive dissonance between their political and military stance. The men in the military “are vocally against Beijing, Xi Jinping, and the People’s Liberation Army.” In 2020, the Pew Research Center observed that Taiwanese between ages 18-29 are less likely to support closer economic or political ties with China when compared to their older counterparts. However, anti-PRC sentiment does not motivate these men, and wider society, to make sacrifices to defend their republic, nor does it translate into increased alertness toward PRC threats or investment into defenses.

“[China’s invasion] is never a topic of discussion [in the military],” one interviewee said. Another lamented, “Of course, everyone knows that the threat from China has always existed, but they think that it’s only in the news. They don’t know that it’s coming.”

For one thing, the bias toward optimism clouds understanding of war. Taiwan clings to the hope that the PRC will not invade, or that even if it does, the United States would break its strategic ambiguity and come to Taiwan’s rescue. Based on a survey from Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, 51% of respondents disagreed with the statement “do you think China will invade Taiwan at any time?” while 39% of respondents agreed.

Secondly, we see the stigma against occupational soldiers in the popular idiom “a good man does not become a soldier, and a good piece of metal does not hit a nail.” This stigma is a byproduct of the third reason: the fractured relationship between the military and the Taiwanese public.

This dates all the way back to 1949, when the Kuomintang (KMT) fled to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland and began its military occupation as the de facto government of Taiwan. The subsequent 228 Incident and the martial law period, dubbed the White Terror, traumatized Taiwanese people as the KMT military imprisoned, tortured, and executed local elites, intelligentsia, and civilians.

Modern-day Taiwan looks very different from the repressive, authoritarian regime that ruled the archipelago until a few decades ago. Taiwan’s road to democracy and investment in transitional justice has reformed many once-authoritarian institutions, making Taiwan a leading democracy in Asia. However, political repression at the hands of the military still taints Taiwanese society’s view of the military generations later.

A military/civilian solution 

The invasion of Ukraine shocked Taiwan, and the world. Analysts, policymakers, and netizens often ask, “Is Taiwan next?” A more productive question would be: What can we do to make Taiwan prohibitively costly to invade?

Healing the fractured relationship between the military and the civilians is a harder task than any one policy can tackle. Taiwanese people should recognize and respect the military. More importantly, the military should earn its respect within Taiwanese society. There are two tangible ways the military and civilians can work together to achieve a defensive Taiwanese military for the Taiwanese people.

Not only should citizen soldiers have a longer and more intense conscription service, Taiwanese culture should shift to recognize the threat of invasion. Critics should not interpret efforts to change the duration and quality of Taiwan’s military as an attempt to transform the liberal democratic country into a military regime. Instead, it is a way to signal to Beijing that the risks of invading Taiwan will outweigh the gains. Taiwanese men should walk away from their service feeling more confident in their country’s defense system after going through the rigorous boot camp.

Even more importantly, Taiwanese civilians should feel like their military will protect them. Besides improving conscription services, the Taiwanese military should also consider establishing short-term, low-commitment courses for civilians. A growing number of private companies have already taken the initiative in teaching civilians the basics of surviving war and weapon use. The military can use this opportunity to build a stronger bond with the public and also lead and supervise disseminated information for a territorial defense force, much like Ukraine’s “weekend warriors” prior to the 2022 invasion.

Taiwan’s future is not set. However, China’s military capacities are growing, making Taiwan’s need for deterrence ever-pressing and imperative. Taiwan must develop and fortify its defense units, starting from civilians and conscription soldiers. This means more than buying new weapons, building asymmetric capabilities, or lengthening the period of conscription. Taiwan needs a whole-of-society approach to preparedness, and must internalize Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech a day before Russia’s invasion: “When you attack us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”

Claire Tiunn (Chang) (claire@pacforum.org) is a research intern at Pacific Forum and a politics and Russian and Eastern European studies double major at Pomona College.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

 

Extended ‘Gray Zone’ Deterrence in the South China Sea

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR9, pp. 31-39

Abstract

Strong military commitments by stronger allies to defend weaker partners is just one necessary component of extended deterrence to limited (gray zone) aggression. Another essential part is the weaker partners’ presence in disputed domains. In the context of the South China Sea, given the vast capability gap between China and Southeast Asian claimants, bolstering the latter’s control of and presence in disputed domains through material assistance focused on offshore patrolling assets and ISR capabilities (such as drones and space-based monitoring systems) is critical to preserving the status quo. This study employed a quantitative data analysis of territorial conquests and a formal analysis of gray zone conflict to support the claim.

About this Volume

Authors of this volume participated in the inaugural U.S.-Japan Next-Generation Leaders Initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, through the U.S. Embassy Tokyo. With backgrounds from academia, government, military and industry, the cohort brings rich insights on the past, present, and future of the U.S.-Japan bilateral security relations.

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. Pacific Forum’s publications do not necessarily reflect the positions of its staff, donors and sponsors.

Click here to download the full volume.


Shusuke Ioku is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Political Science, the University of Rochester where he studies formal Political Theory and International Relations. His current research projects address inefficiency of coercive diplomacy and subnational political consequences of Chinese economic statecraft. He has a particular interest in gray-zone maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas since he did an internship at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Before coming to the United States, he received an M.A. in Political Science from Waseda University and B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Tokyo.


PhotoA Planet Skysat captured this image of Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea on May 3, 2020. Constructed between 2014 and 2017, Fiery Cross reef is one of China’s seven militarized artificial islands in the Spratlys that have become symbols of China’s gray zone coercion and salami slicing. Source: Photo by Skysat/Creative Commons

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR6 – AUKUS A Look Back at The First Analyses

Introduction
David Santoro and Rob York

Announced just over a year ago on Sept. 15, 2021, the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security partnership promised work on two interrelated lines of effort between the three allies. One entailed providing Australia with a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability. The other involved cooperation on developing and providing joint advanced military capabilities to promote security and stability in the region, including in cyber, artificial intelligence and autonomy, quantum technologies, undersea capabilities, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic systems, electronic warfare, and information sharing.

AUKUS sent shockwaves across the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Some praised the new partnership, explaining that it would tighten the US hub-and-spokes alliance system and stand as a powerful deterrent to China’s new assertiveness in the region. Others¾with the People’s Republic of China in the lead¾were much less enthusiastic, even outright critical, insisting that it would create unnecessary tensions, possibly leading to arms races or crises, and undermine nonproliferation norms and rules. France was also deeply upset because AUKUS immediately led to Australia’s cancellation of a French-Australian submarine deal, without notice.

In the days, weeks, and months that followed the AUKUS announcement, the Pacific Forum published, via its PacNet Commentary series, several preliminary analyses on the trilateral partnership, each reflecting a specific national perspective from throughout the Indo-Pacific and beyond. One year later, and as implementation of the AUKUS partnership remains ongoing, we have compiled these analyses into a Pacific Forum Issues & Insights volume.

It is our hope that these publications will provide a basis for further study and additional recommendations.

Table of Contents

PacNet 41, 09/20/2021. After the shock: France, America, and the Indo-Pacific by Bruno Tertais

PacNet 44, 09/29/2021. How AUKUS advances Australia’s commitment to collective defense by Ashley Townshend

PacNet 46, 10/05/2021. After AUKUS, “present at the creation” in the 21st century by Brad Glosserman

PacNet 48, 10/19/2021. New Zealand and AUKUS: Affected without being included by Robert Ayson

PacNet 50, 10/26/2021. Fold, call, or raise? China’s potential reactions to AUKUS by Yun Sun

PacNet 51, 11/03/2021. What AUKUS means for European security by Marie Jourdain

PacNet 54, 11/22/2021. What AUKUS means for Malaysia’s technological future by Elina Noor

PacNet 57, 12/10/2021. Building on AUKUS to forge a PAX Pacifica by Henry Sokolski

PacNet 58, 12/14/2021. Why the UK was the big winner of AUKUS by David Camroux

PacNet 59, 12/21/2021. “JAUKUS” and the emerging clash of alliances in the Pacific by Artyom Lukin

PacNet 60, 12/28/2021. AUKUS’ short- and long-term implications for Taiwan by Fu Mei

PacNet 05, 01/21/2022. AUKUS’ opportunities and risks for Indi by Manpreet Sethi

PacNet 11, 02/24/2022. Nuclear submarines for our Pacific Allies: When to say yes by Henry Sokolski

PacNet #50 – China’s new (old) Taiwan white paper: What’s the point?

In the wake of the People’s Liberation Army exercises in August, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) released a new white paper on its goal of “reunification” with Taiwan. Much of the change in this paper, compared to the most recent white papers (in 1993 and 2000) papers is tonal—Cherry Hitkari of the Lowy Institute notes it is “far more assertive, elaborate and emotionally charged.” There is also an added sense of urgency, as the resolution of the Taiwan question is now seen as a necessary condition for the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation,” the catch-all term for Xi’s ambition for great-power status. Rhetorical flourishes aside, the 2022 white paper is by no means revolutionary. Mentions of “peaceful reunification,” “one country, two systems,” and “people-to-people exchanges,” continue to litter its pages.

The differences, however, are indicators of Chinese intentions towards Taiwan, and the prospects for preventing further escalation.

The CCP reiterates its stance on pursuing “peaceful reunification,” under the “one country, two systems” (OCTS) policy, parroted by successive Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping. According to the paper, the CCP will pursue “people-to-people” economic and cultural exchanges, leading to “consultation and discussion as equals,” as the process by which unification would be achieved. It continues to discuss OCTS as the “only” and “inevitable” solution for Taiwan.

These calls will likely remain unanswered in Taiwan, which views OCTS as “wishful thinking.” Unification, or moves towards unification, have all-time low levels of support among polls of Taiwanese people. The most recent poll, conducted before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit, found that 6.4% of respondents support either “unification as soon as possible,” or to “maintain status quo, move toward unification.” The experience of Hong Kong under OCTS further diminished the already-bleak outlook for the policy. The steady dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomy, starting with the State Council’s 2014 white paper on the region, and now the “overly broad interpretation of and arbitrary application” (per a UN report) of the Beijing-imposed national security law in 2020 showed Taiwanese exactly what to expect under OCTS.

The white paper, despite its talk of “peaceful reunification,” also provides ominous signs for the (im)balance of carrots and sticks the CCP has used and will continue to use against Taiwan. The paper notably removes more conciliatory language present in the 1993 and 2000 white papers, including prior promises of a high degree of autonomy, and to not deploy military and administrative personnel to the island. The noted absence of the latter assurance is especially worrying, as the CCP has declared its intention to prosecute members of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party for “secession,” made a crime under the Anti-Secession Law in 2005. The absence of the military deployment promise also comes alongside worrying calls by Chinese ambassador to France Lu Shaye that Taiwanese people need to be “re-educated” in a unification situation. Thus, the Chinese are doing little to rehabilitate the OCTS plan in Taiwan.

The white paper advocates “peaceful reunification” under a discredited system rejected by the Taiwanese, a majority of whom are now willing to fight to prevent its imposition on the island. The Chinese are apparently aware of this and defend their actions in Hong Kong: according to the 2022 white paper, the CCP “made some appropriate improvements,” which “laid a solid foundation for the law-based governance of Hong Kong.” Thus, the Chinese are aware of the discredited status of OCTS and make no effort to rehabilitate it.

In this light, the question is: what, then, is the purpose of the white paper?

The answer is probably domestic. On the one hand, the paper may be geared towards party cadres ahead of the 20th National Party Congress, slated to occur later this year. Observers have remarked that Xi’s administration relies less on economic growth—as had been the case for the prior three paramount leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao—and more so on nationalist sentiment and delivering on the plan for national rejuvenation to legitimize his rule into an unprecedented third term. On the latter, Xi faces increasing headwinds internationally with (further) growing great-power rivalry with the United States, souring opinions of the Belt and Road Initiative among some partners, and failure to conclude a trade deal with the European Union. The more in-depth discussion of post-unification Taiwan and setting a (rather ambiguous) deadline of not “leaving the Taiwan question to the next generation” could demonstrate the CCP’s intentions to escalate pressure on Taiwan heading into Xi’s third term.

The other answer is that the white paper serves as a nationalist “anti-inflammatory”. The CCP has stoked nationalism as another plank in their domestic legitimacy, and often refers to this sentiment—allowed to flourish on sites like Weibo—to justify their more aggressive moves abroad. Yet, despite creating and stoking these sentiments, it has grown to something beyond Beijing’s control. In the run-up to Speaker Pelosi’s visit, nationalists called for strong action against both the United States and Taiwan, with Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of Global Times calling for the PLA to “forcibly dispel,” and if ineffective, shoot down Pelosi’s plane. Following Pelosi’s visit, censors hurried to delete posts calling Beijing’s response too weak, as some appeared to demand “reunification by force,” or an invasion of Taiwan.

The attempt to dispel nationalist fervor constitutes self-recognition that the PRC is not yet ready to unify Taiwan by force, reinforcing the Pentagon’s assessment that an invasion is unlikely for another two years. To some extent, this involves military capabilities—while China does not have the necessary lift capacity to sustain an invasion the recent exercises have shown that an air and sea blockade of the island is possible. Rather, the CCP Leadership recognizes that the military, economic, and diplomatic costs of such an offensive are too high, especially given the current self-inflicted damage to the domestic economy from the zero-COVID policy, a collapsing housing market as developers like Evergrande default on its debts and foreign debt crisis as partners are forced to default on Chinese loans.

As Beijing continues its naval modernization and escalation around Taiwan, the United States must prepare, striking a balance between support for Taiwan that increases the potential costs of a CCP offensive military action, and overzealous support that Zhongnanhai can contrive as pretext for further escalation. Some aspects of the Taiwan Policy Act currently in the Senate may stray to the latter side of this balance. Following President Biden’s statements of intent to defend Taiwan, Washington should clarify that it considers a military blockade an act of war, as one participant stated at our US-Taiwan Deterrence and Defense Dialogue earlier this month. Though Manilla may be hesitant for fear of retribution by the CCP, stationing a small, mobile naval force in the Philippines would decrease the response time for cross-strait disturbances, forcing further Chinese recalculations. If stationing such a force proves infeasible, the US should increase its military engagement with the Philippines beyond the occasional freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. Last, the United States must finally answer the call of Rep. Elaine Luria, a frequent critic of the deterioration of the United States Navy, who noted in 2021 the Navy wanted to retire fifteen ships while procuring only four. This trend must reverse—Chinese calculations already expect US intervention in a Taiwan contingency, thus empowering our navy helps to prevent the contingency from happening.

Jake Steiner (jake@pacforum.org) is a resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum. His research focuses on the intersection between the foreign and domestic policies of the People’s Republic of China, sharp power, and I.R. constructivism. He holds a MA Honours in Economics and International Relations from the University of St Andrews (GBR).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #46 – Correcting the Narrative on China’s “New Era-gance”: Taipei, Washington, and many are angry at Beijing’s bullying

Furious China fires missiles near Taiwan in drills after Pelosi visit,” blared a typical headline just after the congressional delegation’s visit on Aug. 2-3. Such parroting of Beijing propaganda wrongly blames a long-standing practice of US official visits to the Island instead of provocations by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Even worse is that this inaccurate, tiresome narrative exacerbates the PRC’s political warfare that attempts to excuse its bullying and potential unjustified, unprovoked use of force against Taiwan and other peaceful neighbors.

Let’s be clear: a visit is not a trigger for conflict. It is Taiwan, the United States, and other freedom-loving countries that are angry at the PRC’s “new era” of arrogance plus encroachment. People should have learned the lesson from the 1995-96 crisis, what I described as the PRC’s test-firing of missiles near Taiwan by blaming Congress and using a visit as pretext to provoke tension and to advance planned military buildups.

American resolve, strength, and leadership

On July 20, President Joe Biden prompted attention—as well as China’s attempts at intimidation—regarding this congressional delegation (CODEL) when he answered a reporter’s question on whether the speaker’s trip to Taiwan would be a good idea. He responded that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” It was surprising for a former senator to say that and attribute it to the neutral military. The Heritage Foundation’s Walter Lohman, a former congressional staffer, noted: “what is a surprise is that the president of the United States would try to dissuade her from doing it.”

Amid China’s inflammatory rhetoric threatening Pelosi and other Americans, on Aug. 1, Biden firmly warned: “The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our capacity to defend the American people against those who seek to do us harm. …if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.” Biden is capable of tough strategic messaging, but he directed that strong statement at terrorists in announcing the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri of Al Qaeda.

Pelosi has led three crucial roles that fell on Congress. First, the CODEL showed US strength, resolve, and leadership. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Chairman Gregory Meeks, who joined the trip, summed up why the members were compelled to visit Taiwan, precisely given the PRC’s threats: “we can’t be bullied by anyone.” The delegation’s visit was a relief.

Second, it was Pelosi who eloquently explained policy and interests, not only to the American people but also international audiences. In her commentary in The Washington Post as she arrived on Aug. 2, she wrote: “The Taiwan Relations Act set out America’s commitment to a democratic Taiwan, providing the framework for an economic and diplomatic relationship that would quickly flourish into a key partnership.” She accurately placed the responsibility on Beijing for intensifying tensions with Taipei. She also stated that “America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom.” She pointed out that “the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy” as Russia wages war in Ukraine.

In contrast, even though Biden as a senator voted for the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, he has not adequately articulated policy. A day after stating that the United States has a “commitment” to get involved militarily, on May 24, Biden simply said “no” when a reporter asked him to explain why he denied that “strategic ambiguity” is dead.

Third, Pelosi also brought bipartisan unity. For example, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell commended “the Speaker’s display of support for Taiwan’s democracy.” Senators Bob Mendenez (D-New Jersey) and James Risch (R-Idaho), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated: “Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan provides no justification for this sort of measure,” referring to PLA military exercises that essentially represent a blockade.

Manufactured crisis

Pelosi’s delegation was the latest in a decades-long series of visits by members of Congress, administration officials, and military officers as senior as flag/general officers. Even post-1979 visits by cabinet-rank officials started in 1992. It is standard practice for such delegations to fly on military aircraft, including to Taiwan. This CODEL of six members visited Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Japan, with its stop in Taiwan coming on Aug. 2-3.

The PRC then conducted military exercises on Aug. 4-10, egregiously including dangerous live-fire launches of 11 DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles toward Taiwan that flew into the sea to the northeast, east, and southwest of the island. Her visit is a pretext for the PRC’s provocations in a “manufactured crisis” as condemned by the National Security Council on Aug. 4. The NSC also rebuked the People’s Liberation Army’s actions as an irresponsible, provocative, destabilizing, and aggressive over-reaction.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) described the PLA’s actions as a simulated attack on Taiwan.

China is learning lessons from Russia’s blockade against Ukraine. Just as Russia’s brutal invasion has targeted civilians and military personnel, the PRC fired missiles that threatened civilian centers, aircraft, and shipping.

Biden responded to China’s instigated instability by keeping US naval ships and F-35B fighters to the east of Taiwan for a longer period of time to monitor the situation. The assets included the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and two large amphibious ships, the USS Tripoli and USS America. Previously, US aircraft carriers sailed near Taiwan during the 1995-1996 crisis and Taiwan’s presidential election in 2008. Biden also postponed the test of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

China has raised tensions before the crisis

In contrast to US de-escalation, China has raised tension with military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and other maritime areas for decades. For example, the PLA held live-fire exercises in multiple seas in 2020. The PLA held air and naval exercises in August 2021. In May 2022, the PLA held a live-fire exercise in the Bohai Sea, and PRC and Russian air exercise took place during Biden’s visit to Asia and a QUAD meeting.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, officials have voiced tough stances on Taiwan, including to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on March 14, President Biden on March 18, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on April 20.

At the Shangri-la Dialogue in June, Austin criticized the PLA for unprofessional and aggressive intercepts. He said that “in February, a PLA Navy ship directed a laser at an Australian P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, seriously endangering everyone on board.” Another incident occurred between a US C-130 aircraft and a PLA SU-30 fighter.

Just in June and July, the PLA also has protested against a US P-8 flight, freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), Taiwan Strait Transits, and arms sales to Taiwan.  PLA fighters crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait and the PLA held an exercise around the time of Senator Scott’s CODEL on July 8. On July 28, the PLA already announced live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Strait.

On Aug. 5, China further escalated by announcing cancellations and suspensions of dialogues in eight areas, including military-to-military Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT) and meetings under the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA). The PLA did not suspend talks with Secretary Austin or Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. However, their PLA counterparts have refused to communicate during this crisis.

I have expected China to increase tension ahead of Taiwan’s local elections on Nov. 26.

Beijing’s belligerence backfires

The world sees China’s unreasonable, unjustified, and aggressive behavior. Taiwan has received support and sympathy from countries throughout the world. China’s instigation of this latest crisis raises questions about how the United States, Taiwan, and other peaceful and like-minded countries should respond to China’s belligerent and egregious threats to peace and stability. Overall, countries will need to be more proactive and creative, especially in diplomatic initiatives. A coordinated campaign is needed within the US government as well as with allies and partners that increases use of informational, economic, military, and diplomatic tools to deter coercion and conflict as well as to shore up Taiwan’s resilience and legitimacy.

Shirley Kan (skan@globaltaiwan.org) is an independent specialist in Asian security affairs who worked for the US Congress at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and Advisor at the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #33 – China cannot hinder international navigation through Taiwan Strait

During China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on June 13, he responded to a Bloomberg question concerning the legal status of the Taiwan Strait. Asked about Chinese military officials’ contention that the Taiwan Strait does not constitute “international waters,” he said that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of China’s territory. …According to UNCLOS and Chinese laws, the waters of the Taiwan Strait, extending from both shores toward the middle of the Strait, are divided into several zones including internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, and the Exclusive Economic Zone. China has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.”

He went on to say that calling the strait international waters is “a false claim” by “certain countries” searching for a pretext for “threatening China’s sovereignty and security.”

However, while the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not use the phrase “international waters” most waters, even territorial seas and exclusive economic zones (EEZs), can be used for international navigation.

Instead, the relevant UNCLOS terms concerning movement through the Taiwan Strait are that it is a “transit passage” through a strait used for “international navigation.”

The Taiwan Strait’s importance as a shipping channels is well-documented: it links major economies such as China, Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, India, among others. Maritime traffic on the Strait has also increased drastically in recent years. The Strait’s width is approximately 220 nautical miles at its widest, meaning that for both China and Taiwan, it falls within the 200 nautical miles afforded to all countries for their EEZs. Because the Strait is “used for international navigation between one part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone and another part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone,” as defined by Article 37 of UNCLOS, “all ships and aircraft enjoy the right of transit passage, which shall not be impeded.”

Transit passage

Transit Passage is very well-founded in UNCLOS. According to Article 38, it “means the exercise of…the freedom of navigation and overflight solely for the purpose of continuous and expeditious transit of the strait.”

One may observe that this right of transit passage merely repeats all states’ freedom of navigation and overflight within any state’s EEZ (as spelled out in Article 58) as well as in the high seas (according to Article 87).

Thus, the right of all States to navigate and fly over to transit, in this case, the Taiwan Strait, is very well defined in international law, and shall not be impeded by China or any other state.

Long-standing international conventions

In addition, UNCLOS recognizes “the legal regime in straits in which passage is regulated in whole or in part by long-standing international conventions in force specifically relating to such straits” (Article 35).

In the Taiwan Strait, there is a center line called the Davis median line with its origins in the 1954 US-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty. Even though China does not officially recognize the existence of the de facto center line, there has been a tacit understanding on both sides of the strait to respect the unofficial boundary. The line was established in 1954, and through August 2020, there was only four reported Chinese military incursions across the line.

Since September 2020, however, China has sent many airplanes into the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone, presumably crossing the Davis median line many times.

China may be trying to ignore the Davis median line. But its historical value in keeping the peace in the Taiwan Strait for more than half a century should be considered by an UNCLOS tribunal, in case of an eventual dispute in front of an UNCLOS panel, as “long-standing international conventions in force” that should be enforced.

In any event, China cannot do much to legally hinder or impede all States’ right of transit passage through the Taiwan Strait. China should respect the tradition of the median line, and deal with Taiwan Strait issues differently.

Innocent passage

In addition to the right of transit passage with freedom of navigation and overflight through the Strait in the EEZ and high seas, Article 45 says ships of all states also enjoy the right of innocent passage (in other words, is not engaged in prohibited activities) through China’s (and Taiwan’s) territorial sea within the Taiwan Strait.

In other words, China cannot claim the Taiwan Strait as its own waters, be they territorial seas or EEZ, just to hinder international navigation.

Tran Đinh Hoanh () is an international litigator and writer in Washington DC.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Coast Guard Engagement as an Interim Alternative to Bilateral Maritime Cooperation

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR1, pp. 24-29

Abstract

The U.S.-Philippine alliance has been under strain in the past several years due to domestic political challenges, notwithstanding Manila’s worsening external security environment. To cope, Washington needs an interim approach to continue its maritime security cooperation with Manila, one that would not be perceived as simply a repackaged strategy to curtail Beijing’s aggressive behavior. This paper looks into the United States Coast Guard’s (USCG) recent involvement in promoting maritime security in the Philippines and the broader Southeast Asia. It poses the question: Why is coast guard cooperation between the United States and the Philippines serving as an interim approach to sustain maritime security cooperation? This paper contends three reasons why the USCG-Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) engagement is a step in the right direction that could, in the long term, advance a more rules-based and stable regional maritime environment. First, security cooperation through coast guard engagements avoids political intrigues and is welcomed by regional countries. As a regional norm, coast guard cooperation supports the non-militarization of maritime disputes and is not viewed as an escalation of tensions. Second, coast guard organizations have multifaceted functions that play numerous roles and are not solely focused on patrolling contested waters. For instance, coast guards have responsibilities that help maintain maritime order and protect global trade. Lastly, the use of the coast guard is a non-partisan issue regardless of the inclination of the government in power. The paper concludes with policy recommendations that underscore how coast guard cooperation between the Philippines and the United States is a complement (vice substitute) to current and future military engagements advancing the alliance.

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About this Volume

Authors of this volume participated in the inaugural U.S.- Philippines Next-Generation Leaders Initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, through the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines. With backgrounds from academia, public policy, civil society and industry, the cohort brings rich insights on the past, present, and future of the U.S.-Philippines bilateral security relations.

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. Pacific Forum’s publications do not necessarily reflect the positions of its staff, donors and sponsors.


Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Commander. He is the Director of PCG’s Leadership and Doctrine Development Center. He obtained his Ph.D. in Policy Analysis from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program. At GRIPS, he was a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) ASEAN Public Policy Leadership Scholar. Previously, he was assigned at the PCG national headquarters in Manila and performed numerous functions in different capacities, including maritime security capability development and organizational restructuring reforms. He also acted as the personal adviser to the PCG Commandant on human resource management, particularly on recruitment plans, career management, and personnel specialization. He attended numerous military and coast guard training, locally and abroad. He holds a graduate degree from the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy Graduate School and a Master of Policy Studies from GRIPS and the Japan Coast Guard Academy, where he was part of the inaugural class of the Maritime Safety and Security Program launched jointly by both institutions in 2016. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum, Honolulu. Further, he has written opinion-editorial articles published by The Diplomat, The National Interest, Analyzing War, and other leading publications.


Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Munro (left) and Philippine Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Vessel Gabriela Silang (right) render honors to each other following bilateral operations and exercises on Aug. 31, 2021, in the West Philippine Sea. Source: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Marine Corps Sgt. Kevin G. Rivas

PacNet #59 – “JAUKUS” and the emerging clash of alliances in the Pacific

When the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) agreement was announced in September, Moscow’s initial response was gloating. In 2015 Paris had reneged on a deal to sell Russia two amphibious Mistral warships and now France itself has been let down by its close allies.

Quickly, however, emotional satisfaction gave way to cold geopolitical calculations, which had little to do with France. On the surface, the military-technological arrangement of the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia is of minor concern to Russia. AUKUS’ area of focus is the Indo-Pacific, whereas Russia’s most vital security interests and geopolitical ambitions are in Europe and the Middle East. In the Pacific, Russia’s strategic posture is defensive and status-quo-oriented.

That doesn’t mean Russia isn’t concerned. The Russian Pacific Fleet currently has only seven nuclear-powered submarines on active duty, and Australia is expected to receive eight submarines with American and British assistance. Still, no one expects that Russia will need to fight Australian subs, if only because their area of operation would likely be much closer to the South China Sea than the Sea of Okhotsk.

Everyone understands that AUKUS has China in its crosshairs. So, Moscow’s stance on AUKUS is first and foremost determined by Russia’s relationship with China. Mostly because they have a shared foe—the United States—Moscow and Beijing have been building up a “strategic partnership” since the late 1990s. The Russo-Chinese alignment, as it stands now, has all the features of a quasi-alliance, or entente.

There is little chance that Russia and the United States work out their differences in the foreseeable future, especially given the Ukraine issue. At the same time, a multi-faceted geopolitical and geo-economic rivalry between Beijing and Washington is intensifying. The Moscow-Beijing bond, then, will only get stronger. Russia expects Chinese support in its confrontation with NATO in Eastern Europe. As we will see, based on readouts of official talks and commentary from Chinese state media, Beijing seeks to enlist Moscow as an ally against US-led coalitions in the Indo-Pacific. This is why Moscow opposes AUKUS—and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia—even if these arrangements do not pose a direct challenge to Russian security.

Moscow has repeatedly expressed its disapproval of AUKUS, including at the highest level. In a recent public appearance, Vladimir Putin called it a “closed alliance” whose establishment “leads to more tensions” in “the Pacific zone.” During his videoconference with Xi Jinping on Dec. 15, both leaders denounced AUKUS, as well as the Quad. Putin has also expressed support for Beijing’s “legitimate position on Taiwan-related issues.” According to Xinhua’s account of the Putin-Xi conversation, Russia “will firmly oppose moves by any force to undermine China’s interests using Taiwan-related issues, and moves to form any type of ‘small groups’ in the Asia-Pacific region.” Reciprocating Putin’s understanding of Chinese strategic concerns in the Indo-Pacific, Xi “supported Russia’s demands” that NATO should stop expanding toward Russian borders.

Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov referred to AUKUS as a “bloc” and “destabilizing factor,” which may “usher in a new phase of struggle for dominance not only in the Asia-Pacific, but in other regions as well.” Gerasimov also emphasized AUKUS’ potential to proliferate nuclear technology. In another sign of Russian solidarity with China, the Russian envoy at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna joined his Chinese counterpart in labeling AUKUS a potential nonproliferation concern. (As an aside, Russia’s purism with respect to the nonproliferation dimension of AUKUS may smack of double standards. For decades, since the 1980s, the Soviet Union/Russia has been leasing nuclear-powered submarines to India and this collaboration program is still active.)

To counter AUKUS, Beijing may expect more from Moscow than rhetorical solidarity. With China bracing for a long-haul rivalry with the United States and its many allies and partners, Beijing will probably attempt to construct its own network of alliances, and Russia will be front and center. In military terms, Russia offers three benefits to China. First, Russia is the most significant external supplier of military technology for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), even as China is becoming increasingly capable of designing and producing most sophisticated weapons. Second, Russia can tie down US forces in the European theater, distracting Washington and weakening its capacity to respond to contingencies in the Western Pacific. Finally, Russia could support China in the Pacific strategic theater in the event of a confrontation, most probably over Taiwan.

It is perhaps only a question of time before a fourth nation, Japan, throws its weight behind AUKUS. De facto, it is already there, informally, and a formal linkage may be in the works, despite US officials’ claims to the contrary. Tokyo has consistently signaled that it would not stand aloof in a contingency over Taiwan, and it has been more vocal in recent months.

The emerging “JAUKUS” is primarily a naval partnership. If there is a war between China and JAUKUS countries, it will happen primarily at sea. This is where Russia’s assets in the North Pacific would come in handy, and there are signs that Beijing is beginning to see Russia as an important part of China’s response to the maritime threats coming from the JAUKUS coalition. Even just a month before AUKUS was announced, the Russian International Affairs Council published an article by Zhao Huasheng, a professor of Fudan University, in which he proposes to add a maritime dimension to the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. The article argues that “China and Russia are facing serious security threats from sea, some of which are from the same source. Maritime military cooperation between China and Russia can enhance their respective military defense capabilities and more effectively safeguard their security.”

Given the sensitivity of the subject, it is unlikely a senior Chinese scholar published this article without a nod from Beijing. In a Russian-Chinese expert roundtable in late October, which I attended, there were also calls from the Chinese side for arrangements consisting of states not happy with AUKUS and the Quad.

The maritime domain has been an increasingly important component in Russo-Chinese military cooperation. The most spectacular recent manifestation was a “joint patrol” by Russian and Chinese warships in the Pacific Ocean, in which they nearly circumnavigated Japan. Of note, the commanding ship of the joint flotilla was the Chinese newest destroyer Nanchang. Beijing’s Global Times said the Sino-Russian naval demonstration was “a warning to Japan as well as the US, which have been rallying allies to confront China and Russia, destabilizing the region.”

The North Pacific is the most logical theater to operationalize a Moscow-Beijing military axis. Russia and China have a direct presence in the region, where they maintain substantial military capabilities, which can complement each other. It is also in the North Pacific that Russia and China directly interact with a shared adversary—the United States and its junior ally Japan. Last June, Russia held massive military drills in its Far East and adjacent waters. The exercise simulated “a standoff of two coalitions of states,” even though the composition of antagonistic coalitions was not revealed.

Russia’s naval capabilities in the Pacific are limited, with the Russian Pacific Fleet being essentially a green-water navy. Still, Russia can provide a range of force multiplier functions to the Chinese in the event of a new Pacific War. For example, Chinese submarines can use Russia’s Pacific littoral zone, especially the Sea of Okhotsk, as a sanctuary. In recent years, Russia has been building its coastal defenses in the Pacific, paying special attention to the Kuril Islands that guard the entrance into the Sea of Okhotsk. The prospect of China getting basing rights on the Russian Pacific Coast, perhaps in Kamchatka, also no longer looks out of question. When a conflict over Taiwan erupts and the United States and Japan intervene militarily, China might rely on Russia to launch a counterattack against Alaska and the Japanese Islands.

One might ask about Russia’s motivation to get drawn into a Pacific war between China and JAUKUS, especially given that such a war could easily escalate? The simple answer is that Moscow has no choice. If the Ukraine crisis escalates and the West imposes massive sanctions on Russia, Moscow will turn to China for an economic lifeline. Chinese help is unlikely to come free of charge. In return, Russia might be asked to accommodate Beijing’s military requests in the Pacific.

North Korea is another strategic player in the North Pacific whose geo-economic dependence on China, along with its avowed anti-Americanism, makes it a suitable candidate for a Sino-centric alliance network.

Over the next few years, a “RUCNDPRK” partnership could become a counterbalance to JAUKUS.

Artyom Lukin (artlukin@mail.ru) is Deputy Director for Research at the Oriental Institute – School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University (Vladivostok, Russia).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #52 – The Growing Crisis of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing

A recent conference, in which Pacific Forum joined the Navy League’s Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange (IMSE), the East-West Center, and the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, focused on the problems of IUU fishing and potential solutions to counter its recent dramatic growth. The author was one of the organizers of the conference, whose proceedings and session videos can be found at https://imsehawaii.org.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has become a major problem worldwide and particularly in the Pacific. According to the US Coast Guard, “IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. If IUU fishing continues unchecked, we can expect deterioration of fragile coastal States and increased tension among foreign-fishing Nations, threatening geo-political stability around the world.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that approximately 60% of fish caught worldwide come from the Pacific Ocean. Over half are species that are unsustainable if fishing at current rates and methods continue. As fishing fleets have grown they have outstripped the oceans abilities to replenish stocks. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) is estimated to catch approximately 35% of fish, according to NOAA statistics. Dr. Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales stated in his address to the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange’s recent conference on the subject that the PRC is also the no. 1 nation for IUU fishing. Others have been complicit in IUU fishing, including Taiwan and Vietnam. Vietnam, after receiving a warning from the European Union that its fish exports would be barred from its market formulated a high-level task force to work against such practices. Taiwan for diplomatic reasons has done the same. But IUU fishing tends to be a low-risk/high-value activity as penalties for IUU fishers consist mostly of modest fines.

There are many aspects to the problem.

  • Illegal fishing is conducted in waters under the jurisdiction of a state but without the permission of that state.
  • Unreported fishing involves a catch that has not been reported, as required.
  • Unregulated fishing occurs where there are no management measures and is conducted in a manner inconsistent with treaty responsibilities.

Besides over-harvesting of species, IUU fishing takes money from legal fishers and out of local economies. Fisheries are the primary source of income for many Pacific and Oceanic states. It is projected by the Nature Conservancy that many Pacific Island nations will not be able to meet their local food needs in a few years given their population growth and continued IUU fishing. The Nature Conservancy also estimates that over 95% of IUU fishing activities by the Pacific Tuna Fleet involve legally licensed boats that misreport their catch, not by so-called unregistered dark boats.”

IUU fishing also destroys habitat. Bottom trawling damages corals and sea grasses. The losses of sea grasses are important regarding COand climate change. It is estimated the loss of grasses has a greater effect than the CO2 emissions from Germany or the international aviation industry.

Other crimes are associated with IUU fishing, including forgery of records and fraud, corruption, false vessel identity and flagging, licensing avoidance and deception, human rights abuses (e.g., forced labor, human trafficking, and child labor), illegal transshipments of catch and fuel, smuggling of drugs and protected species, black marketeering and money laundering, and the evasion of penalties.

Finding potential solutions to counter IUU fishing was the principal focus of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange conference in early September.

Heretofore surveillance of territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones relied on a nation’s patrol ships and aircraft and active transmissions, such as from the Advanced Identification System (AIS) and vessel monitoring system (VMS), mandated by nations to monitor ships in their areas of responsibility. But IUU fishers often turn off these transmitters—and increasingly spoof their signals—to hide illegal activities.

Sea-based aerial drones are proving to be a valuable adjunct to ships and aircraft for covert surveillance, according to the US Coast Guard, which employs the ScanEagle drone from its newer cutters. Satellite electro-optical imagery has been available commercially for years, but is limited by field of view, resolution, and weather. When cued by other sources, however, it can help identify suspicious vessels.

Newer forms of imagery include the Visible and Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, from NOAA’s Joint Polar-orbiting Satellite System, which detects the bright nighttime lights used by many purse seiner and ring net fishing boats to attract squid and other species. Another is synthetic aperture radar (SAR). It allows surveillance in all-weather conditions as it penetrates clouds and darkness. Many nations have orbited SAR satellites, and commercial companies have recently entered the marketplace for SAR imagery.

The collection of radio frequency emissions by commercial satellites is a new capability. Several US and European firms have entered this market and can pick up navigation radar and other radio emissions from boats at sea even if the boats turn off their required AIS or VMS broadcasts.

In development are unmanned vessels that tow underwater hydrophones that can detect, classify, and report via satellite vessels by type and activity through analysis of sonograms.

While there are many sensor sources, they can produce an overwhelming amount of data and any one source is rarely sufficient to determine many kinds of IUU fishing. The integration of data from disparate sources and the analysis of those data is therefore critical. The data glut is a challenge requiring various advanced analytical techniques, including artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Several organizations analyze data related to IUU fishing. Best known is Global Fishing Watch, a nongovernmental organization that tracks in near-real time fishing around the globe. Australia’s Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is the responsible overseer of fishing in the broad Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic continent. The Pacific Islands Fishing Forum Agency, the International Maritime Control and Surveillance network, and several universities and commercial firms are also involved in aspects of analyzing IUU fishing to provide scientific insight, risk management judgments to companies, or assist in investigations of organizations and individuals behind such illegal activities.

IUU fishing knows no national boundaries. It is a growing global problem. No one nation is capable of enforcing fishing laws and regulations. Countering IUU fishing will require multi-state collaboration, information sharing, and multilateral agreements between regional fishing management organizations, of which there are a plethora. To date, however, information sharing has not always gone well.

There are approaches to IUU fishing beyond law enforcement that organizations are pursuing. These include eliminating national subsidies for fishing. The PRCs subsidies, the most generous of any nation by far, estimated at approximately $7.2 billion in 2018, make otherwise unprofitable fishing profitable, according to Prof. Tabitha Mallory of the China Ocean Institute and the University of Washington. Certification of catches assures buyers of fish that they were caught legally. Publicity about IUU fishing and the deceptive practices associated with it is seen as an important step in depressing market attractiveness of illegally caught fish. Finally, the promotion of aquaculture—farm-raised fish, in which the PRC is deeply invested, is seen as a potential solution for future food needs.

Peter Oleson (peter.oleson@yahoo.com) is a former senior defense official and professor.

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PacNet #42 – Has Washington Found its Feet in Southeast Asia?

This article summarizes the author’s chapter in the new issue of Comparative Connections, which can be read in its entirety here.

In the months following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Southeast Asia was on the backburner in US foreign policy. Starting in May, however, the administration heeded calls for a more active role with a succession of visits by high-level officials, culminating in Kamala Harris’s first trip to the region as vice president. One key “deliverable”—renewal of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila—was enough to label the summer strategy a success.

The administration also responded to the surge of the COVID Delta variant in Southeast Asia with donations of vaccines, making strides in the “vaccine race” with China and Russia. Southeast Asia’s continuing economic crisis, a direct result of COVID-19, has raised concerns over Southeast Asia’s place in global supply chains, an issue Harris addressed on her trip.

Diplomatic Surge

For the first half of 2021 Southeast Asians were uncertain about the new administration’s approach to China. The previous administration had failed to forge a coherent trade policy with the region, and half of Southeast Asian countries lacked a US ambassador confirmed by the Senate.

However, in late May and early June, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. Making Jakarta the first stop on Sherman’s itinerary signaled continued US support for “ASEAN centrality” in the face of Biden’s growing support for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) as a key element of Asian regional architecture.

In late July Secretary of Defense Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Then, in late August, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield made a brief stopover in Bangkok. And in late August, Vice President Kamala Harris visitedSingapore, and became the first US vice president to visit Vietnam.

With Southeast Asia in the grip of a new and more serious surge of COVID-19, US officials also underscored Washington’s position as a major vaccine donor. In Hanoi, Harris announced the opening of a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) office in Vietnam to help coordinate US efforts in Southeast Asia, and also pledged 1 million doses of COVID vaccine to Vietnam, to be delivered within 24 hours. China increased its own vaccine pledge to Vietnam prior to her arrival in Hanoi, but Vietnamese officials attempted to derail the brewing competition with a public reminder that Hanoi “does not ally with one country against another,” one of its longstanding “Three No’s” (along with no military alliances and no military bases in Vietnam).

Renewing the VFA

The most important deliverable of these visits was the renewal of the 1998 US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) facilitating military-to-military cooperation. Signed during a period of relative peace, the VFA has become increasingly relevant, both to the Philippines’ defense against Chinese maritime aggression and as a vehicle for cooperation on counter-terrorism in Mindanao. On July 30, when Austin was in Manila, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that President Rodrigo Duterte had consented to the renewal, and also signaled that he and Austin were discussing a side agreement governing conduct of US forces in the Philippines (an expected long-term effort).

Duterte had dragged out negotiations for renewal of the VFA for more than a year in protest of criticism in the US Congress of human rights violations connected to his anti-drug campaign. The Biden administration demonstrated patience in the face of demands, aided by careful choreography between Austin and Lorenzana. Although the renewal is expected to stick, Duterte will likely remain a thorn in the side of US-Philippine security relations. On Aug. 25 he announced that he would run for vice president in the 2022 general elections, presumably with a hand-picked presidential candidate.

Duterte has publicly linked his agreement to the renewal to Washington’s steady supply of COVID vaccines—nearly 3 million doses of Johnson & Johnson in July, and an equal number of Moderna in early August. He was also likely influenced by growing public disapproval of his handling of Chinese incursions into Philippine territorial waters, despite his overall public support.

Allies, Partners, and Strategic Partners

VFA renewal is a return to the status quo ante and it will mitigate China’s narrative that the United States is losing strength and resolve in the region. The Thai press, however, was quick to view the Austin and Harris trips as snubbing Bangkok and questioned the course of the US-Thailand alliance. Deputy Secretary Sherman and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s stops in Thailand were essentially placeholder visits without notable deliverables. Bangkok, and to some extent Manila, worry Washington is prioritizing newer security partners in the region, particularly Singapore and Vietnam.

But if US-Singapore military-to-military relations are solid, the same cannot be said for the emerging security relationship with Vietnam. Harris’ declaration in Hanoi that the United States was receptive to a strategic partnership with Vietnam got a cool response. Vietnamese officials offered no public comment; the near-term prospects for a strategic partnership appear slim. To be sure, US and Vietnamese officials acknowledge informally that the two often act together “strategically.” Hanoi has a number of strategic partnerships, including with China, and does seek to strengthen its relations with the United States.

However, with US-China tensions high, an announcement that Vietnam was willing to upgrade its comprehensive partnership with Washington to a strategic one would be a provocation to Beijing. Moreover, a strategic partnership applies across the board, and it is not clear what Washington is willing to offer in other areas, particularly trade. Vietnam’s strategic partnership with South Korea led to a bilateral free trade agreement, for instance. The Biden administration does not appear willing to commit to new FTAs yet.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of US-Vietnam relations is positive. In June, the two countries announced that they had settled US charges of currency manipulation with a pledge from Vietnam that it would refrain from devaluing the dong to gain an export advantage.

Still, Southeast Asian leaders also worry that the Biden administration will continue former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s harsh line against China and ASEAN states will be caught in the middle. Harris and Austin made strong speeches centered on China during their trips, and Sherman’s visit to Cambodia was perceived as a sign of concern over Chinese intentions to refurbish Ream Naval Base for their exclusive use. Harris’ address painted China as a regional bully; the Chinese surrogate press charged that the Biden administration was attempting to “create a chasm.” Southeast Asian states with claims in the South China Sea or otherwise challenged by China in maritime zones welcome a principled defense of their sovereignty from Washington. In their view, however, rhetorical jousting—particularly with ideological overtones—makes it difficult for ASEAN to maintain good relations with both sides.

Looking Ahead

The Biden administration has established a new baseline in relations with Southeast Asia, giving Washington greater traction for several fall events. This month, President Biden intends to convene an in-person summit of the Quad; Southeast Asian leaders will watch carefully for signs of an emerging anti-China bloc. Additionally, the administration intends to host a Summit for Democracy in December; the choice of invitations to Southeast Asian leaders will be controversial. Due to COVID, it is not clear whether there will be an in-person East Asia Summit. If there is, Southeast Asia will expect President Biden and Secretary Blinken to participate. If the United States is truly “back” in Southeast Asia, the region will expect Washington to move beyond diplomatic visits and articulate more solid policies, particularly on trade and US relations with ASEAN.

Catharin Dalpino (catharindalpino@earthlink.net) is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. She has also served as a deputy assistant secretary for democracy at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US Department of State, published several books on US policy in Asia, and has testified frequently before Congress on US relations with Southeast Asia.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.