A View from the United States

Although there is progress regarding the code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea between ASEAN and China, the South China Sea is not without tensions.1 China’s first aircraft carrier took part in a naval review, along with latest-generation nuclear submarines, destroyers, and fighter jets in late April, marking the People’s Republic navy’s 70th anniversary.2 Despite warming up with China, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte recently threatened a "suicide mission" if Beijing does not back off from a Manila-occupied island in the South China Sea.3 The United States and Japan held a 2+2 meeting reaffirming the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” approach with primary emphasis on the South and East China Seas.4 In March, the US Navy sent the assault ship USS Wasp — a small aircraft carrier operating 20 F-35B Joint Strike Fighters and a Marine Expeditionary Force — to exercise with the Filipino Navy.5 In addition to the freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) conducted by the US Navy, the US Coast Guard also turned increasingly towards the Asia-Pacific, dispatching its service members to countries such as Vietnam.6 In this commentary, I focus on US policies toward Southeast Asia, above all the South China Sea: What is unchanged? How is policy oscillating? And what has been gradually shifting?

The primary driving force in US awakening to Southeast Asia, especially the salience of the South China Sea, is China, which has maritime territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei in the South China Sea, and has maritime jurisdictional disputes with Indonesia. Taiwan is also a claimant of the South China Sea. As the disputes in the South China Sea gain greater media attention, both academia and the policy community intensified analysis of US policies in Southeast Asia. Discussions became more heated with the Obama administration’s "pivot to Asia."7 It is important to note, however, that the United States has long engaged Southeast Asia, the history of which goes back to the Spanish-American War, World War II, and the Vietnam War. The perceived challenge from China has brought the area back as a principal US concern.

The unchanged

The US position regarding the South China Sea disputes has been very consistent since the 1970s. When militarized conflicts between China and Vietnam broke out in the Parcel Islands in the South China Sea in 1974, the United States stated that South China Sea disputes were "for the claimants to settle among themselves.”8 The US State Department made the following four points on May 10, 1995 regarding the South China Sea: the United States opposes the use of force; the United States has an abiding interest in the maintenance of peace and stability in the area; maintaining freedom of navigation and all maritime activities consistent with international law are fundamental interests of the United States; and the United States takes no position on the legal merits of the competing claims.9 Despite actions such as FONOPs challenging excessive maritime claims by any claimant in the South China Sea, the United States maintains that it does not take a position on sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea.10

Another issue that lacks clarity in discussions in the policy community concerns the US-Philippine mutual defense treaty (MDT). The Philippines has long been a US ally and has maritime territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. Articles IV and V of the MDT, signed in 1951, stated that:
"Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes… For the purpose of Article IV, an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”11

It has long been unclear, however, whether the MDT would apply to disputes in the Spratlys. During the Sino-Philippine standoff around the Mischief Reef in 1995, US officials stated that the MDT would not apply to the Spratlys and that it “does not bind the United States to come to the rescue of the Philippines in a case involving a third country.”12 In 1999, US Ambassador Thomas Hubbard affirmed that “the United States considers the South China Sea to be part of the Pacific Area.”13 On March 1, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that “any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article IV of our mutual defense treaty.”14 Nevertheless, when interviewed in Manila on the same day regarding whether the US would come to the Philippines’ defense if maritime confrontations over the South China Sea occur, Pompeo was not explicit, stating instead that the "South China Sea is certainly part of the threat prospects for this region. We have a defense agreement; it’s very clear about the obligations that each of our two countries have."15

In other words, Pompeo’s remarks did not signal a change in the US position. Although it seems that current and past US administrations clarified that the South China Sea is part of the Pacific covered in the MDT, it is still unclear whether the United States will come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of a maritime conflict with China. Questions remain as to what constitutes "island territories under its jurisdiction" or "an armed attack." China currently exercises regularized patrol and de facto control of the Scarborough Shoal, disputed between China and the Philippines. Does this mean the Philippines does not have jurisdiction over the Scarborough Shoal? China has been conducting gray-zone operations in the South China Sea, using its maritime militia and civilian law enforcement vessels.16 If these gray-zone vessels clash with Philippine vessels, is it considered an armed attack? As of now, the United States has not clarified these questions, thereby putting US alliance credibility in doubt when it comes to the South China Sea.

The oscillating

One issue that some critics of US policy on the South China Sea point out is the lack of clear redlines to warn off Chinese coercive and militarized actions in the South China Sea. Recent US administrations actually went back and forth on redlines. The first term of the Obama administration, for example, was not clear in terms of signaling redlines to China against its behavior in the South China Sea. Obama’s second term, however, witnessed clearer redlines. For instance, Obama called on China to halt its land reclamation activities in the South China Sea during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting, held in Manila in November 2015.17 Obama subsequently warned China in March 2016 that there would be "serious consequences if China reclaimed land at Scarborough Shoal."18 My research suggests that this clear redline is one important factor that deters China from reclaiming the Scarborough Shoal.

Enter the Trump administration. Before getting elected, candidate Trump actually did mention the South China Sea during an interview with The New York Times, accusingly stating that the United States "rebuilt China, and yet they will go in the South China Sea and build a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen."19 After the election, however, Trump got consumed so much with the trade conflict that of all his tweets mentioning China, only one signaled out the South China Sea.20 Of course, the Trump administration still presses China to halt militarization of the South China Sea, but Trump himself has yet to issue a clearly stated public redline, unlike Obama.21 This lack of clarity could have adverse effects. One Chinese analyst, Hu Bo, who has extensive connections with the PLA, argued that, compared to the Obama administration, the Trump administration significantly lacks strategic intentions and clarity regarding the South China Sea.22

Granted, most of the attention is directed towards the South China Sea. Yet US policy towards Southeast Asia is much broader. One less-examined issue area concerns US economic policies towards Southeast Asia. Economic tools, if used properly, can achieve national security goals. China is an example of using economic tools for security ends.23 To the extent that economic statecraft is useful for advancing US security interests in Southeast Asia, US actions seem to be oscillating. Japan remains the dominant foreign investor in Southeast Asia, whereas Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in the region is growing faster and focuses on the region’s weaker economies. Although total US FDI to Southeast Asia between 2003 and 2017 is higher than Chinese FDI, US FDI to the region is witnessing some decline.24 It constituted about 15.3% of foreign investment in Southeast Asia in 2016, but dropped to 3.9% in 2017.25 US exports to Southeast Asia also decreased from more than 15% of total exports to the region in the 1990s to less than 10% in more recent years.26 It is unclear if the decrease of US FDI is a fluke, but the United States certainly has greater room for using economic statecraft in Southeast Asia.

The gradually shifting

Of course, some US policies regarding Southeast Asia did witness a definitive shift. Nevertheless, the shifts came way before the 2012 “pivot to Asia.” In line with Nina Silove’s research on “the pivot before the pivot,”27 there is evidence that the United States began to improve ties with key players in Southeast Asia, including US allies. The shift, however, took place long before the pivot to Asia strategy, as the Pacific Forum’s data on high-level bilateral visits (excluding meetings on the sideline during multilateral forums) between US and Southeast Asian leaders show.28

Table 1. Bilateral visits between US President and ASEAN Countries’ head of government/state (1999-2019)






3 times (2005, 2006, 2007)

3 times (2013, 2014, 2016)

Once (2017)


Twice (2003, 2008)

3 times (2009, 2013, 2014)



4 times (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2008)

3 times (2013, 2015, 2016)

Once (2017)


Once (2006)

Once (2014)

Once (2017)



Once (2013)



Twice (2005, 2006)

Twice (2010, 2015)




Twice (2012, 2013)



Twice (2005, 2008)

Once (2012)

Once (2017)










14 times

16 times

4 times

It is clear that beginning in 2005, the United States began to pay more attention to Southeast Asia, as indicated by the times that US presidents met with the heads of government or state of any ASEAN countries. Despite conventional wisdom that the “pivot to Asia” begins in the second term of the Obama administration, the US “pivot to Southeast Asia” went back to the second term of the Bush administration.

Specific ties with ASEAN countries manifested themselves particularly in strengthening US military cooperation with allies. Policies towards the Philippines underwent changes after the US withdrew its troops from the Subic Bay in the Philippines in 1992, leaving what China perceived as a “geopolitical vacuum.” The visiting forces agreement with the Philippines in 1998 allows US forces temporary stays in the Philippines.29 In particular, after the 9/11 attack, the Philippines became an important ally for the United States due to its terrorist problems. With the visiting forces agreement, hundreds of US forces went in the southern Philippines to hold counterterrorism exercises with Filipino troops fighting Muslim militants.30 Bush designated the Philippines in 2003 a "major non-NATO ally," emphasizing counterterrorism cooperation.31 In 2002, the United States deployed approximately 1,300 special operation forces to the southern Philippines, and the number averaged around 500 to 600 troops in subsequent years.32 Ironically, the United States returned to the Philippines beginning in the early 2000s, not because of China, but because of counterterrorism. In the past ten years, US-Philippine security cooperation began to shift its focus more towards countering the external threat from China.33 Nevertheless, the United States continued its counterterrorism assistance to the Philippines to the present day. For example, in 2018, the United States would provide 1.418 billion Philippine pesos ($26.5 million) over two years to boost counterterrorism support for Philippine law enforcement agencies; also, in 2018, U.S. Marines and the Armed Forces of the Philippines held exercises focusing on counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance.34

Improved US ties with countries in the region had more to do with gaining access and countering China. For example, Singapore agreed in 1998 for the United States to gain access to Singapore’s facilities, and with the completion of the Changi Naval Base in 2001, US aircraft carriers were able to berth at the base.35 Once enemies in the Cold War, US-Vietnam relations picked up beginning in the 2000s. In 2016, two US naval ships docked at Cam Ranh Bay, an important South China Sea port, for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War.36 In April 2019, the US Coast Guard announced plans to transfer six patrol boats, about $12 million, to Vietnam, in addition to 18 ships that had already been transferred.37

Finally, US FONOPs could witness potential changes in the future, and the United States has been apparently trying to make FONOPs into a more multilateral effort, drawing in allies. The United States has been conducting FONOPs since 1979.38 It is important to note that US FONOPs challenge excessive maritime claims from any country, not just China. To be sure, FONOPs have also challenged excessive claims from US allies and partners, including Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.39 With discussions of the Quad concept – a potential security arrangement among India, Australia, Japan and the United States – the United States seems to be encouraging those in the Quad to join FONOPs.40 Although there would be domestic and logistical hurdles for India, Australia, and Japan to join FONOPs, it does appear that the United States is putting efforts to push for a potential multilateral FONOP. As noted at the beginning of this commentary, the United States and Japan, during the most recent 2+2 meeting, stated that they "will continue to advance trilateral and multilateral cooperation with other regional partners, notably the Republic of Korea, Australia, India, and Southeast Asian countries."41


US policies towards Southeast Asia are more complicated than some might assume. Some policies, including positions on sovereignty in maritime territorial disputes and treaty obligations, stay the same, despite rising tensions in the South China Sea. The United States has gone back and forth in terms of redlines in the South China Sea and economic ties in Southeast Asia. Security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries witnessed greater improvement in the past 20 years, but the trend started in the Bush administration, much earlier than the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, and counterterrorism remains a significant portion of the cooperation. In a sense, the United States has returned to Southeast Asia since the early 2000s.

Looking forward, the United States might need to further clarify its redlines in the South China Sea so as to send a stronger deterrence signal to China, even if done privately. More effective economic statecraft in the region would also be in the US interest. Finally, the United States needs to make its FONOPs more frequent and regularized, just as China conducts regularized patrols in the South and East China Seas. Multilateral FONOPs, however, might not be the best way ahead, both due to the logistical and domestic difficulties as well as potential backlash from China they could generate. In other words, multilateral FONOPs would be more likely to contribute to a security dilemma in the South China Sea, as such operations could be interpreted as targeted directly against China, as opposed to any country with excessive maritime claims.

1. Lim Yan Liang, "US-Beijing rivalry a factor in S. China Sea row: Experts," The Strait Times, March 30, 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/south-asia/us-beijing-rivalry-a-factor-in-s-china-sea-row-experts.

2. Christopher Bodeen, "Recent developments surrounding the South China Sea," The Washington Post, April 23, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/recent-developments-surrounding-the-south-china-sea/2019/04/22/6fcbc4b8-64c0-11e9-a698-2a8f808c9cfb_story.html?utm_term=.f4e8c0cd9b67.

3. Ben Westcott and Brad Lendon, "Duterte threatens ‘suicide mission’ if Beijing oversteps in South China Sea," CNN, April 5, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/05/asia/south-china-sea-duterte-beijing-intl/index.html.

4. “Remarks with Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, and Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya at a Joint Press Availability for the U.S.-Japan 2+2 Ministerial,” Department of State, April 19, 2019, https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2019/04/291254.htm.

5. Peter Apps, "Beijing goes unconventional in South China Sea’s escalating confrontation," The Japan Times, April 17, 2019, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2019/04/17/commentary/world-commentary/china-goes-unconventional-south-china-seas-escalating-confrontation/#.XL9V5ZNKj-Y.

6. Dan Lamothe, "To help counter China, U.S. turns to the Coast Guard," The Washington Post, April 20, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2019/04/20/help-counter-china-us-turns-coast-guard/?utm_term=.dcbc25005802.

7. Hillary Clinton, "America’s Pacific Century," Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011, https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/10/11/americas-pacific-century/.

8. Cited in Ang Cheng Guan, "The South China Sea Dispute Re-visited," Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, IDSS Working Paper Series, August 1999, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/rsis-pubs/WP04.pdf.

9. Daily Press Briefing, U.S. Department of State, May 10, 1995, cited in M. Taylor Fravel, "U.S. Policy Towards the Disputes in the South China Sea Since 1995," Policy Report, RSIS, March 2014, https://taylorfravel.com/documents/research/fravel.2014.RSIS.us.policy.scs.pdf.

10. Julian Ku, "Why the U.S. Can’t Take Sides in South China Sea Sovereignty Disputes, Even Against China," Lawfare, June 19, 2017, https://www.lawfareblog.com/why-us-cant-take-sides-south-china-sea-sovereignty-disputes-even-against-china.

11. For the full content of the MDT, see http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/phil001.asp.

12. William Branigin, “China Takes Over Philippine-Claimed Area of Disputed Island Group,” The Washington Post, February 11, 1995.

13. Zack Cooper, "The U.S. quietly made a big splash about the South China Sea," March 19, 2019, Washington Post/Monkey Cage, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/03/19/us-quietly-made-big-splash-about-south-china-sea/?utm_term=.028672b24310.

14. Ibid.

15. “Interview With Buena Bernal of Channel News Asia, Secretary of State’s Remarks,” U.S. State Department, March 1, 2019, https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2019/03/289803.htm.

16. Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson, China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019).

17. Michael D. Shear, "Obama Calls on Beijing to Stop Construction in South China Sea," The New York Times, November 18, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/19/world/asia/obama-apec-summit-south-china-sea-philippines.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FSouth.

18. Demetri Sevastopulo, Geoff Dyer, and Tom Mitchell, "Obama forced Xi to back down over South China Sea dispute," Financial Times, July 11, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/c63264a4-47f1-11e6-8d68-72e9211e86ab.

19. Linda Qiu, "Donald Trump weighs in on China’s island-building in the South China Sea," Politifact, April 4, 2016, https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/apr/04/donald-trump/donald-trump-weighs-chinas-island-building-south-c/.

20. This is based on a search through Trump’s twitter account and keywords: China, South China Sea, https://twitter.com/search?src=typd&q=China%20from%3ArealDonaldTrump.

21. "US presses China to halt militarization of South China Sea, drawing rebuke from Beijing," Reuters, November 10, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/10/us-presses-china-to-halt-militarization-of-south-china-sea.html.

22. 胡波, 刘琳, 唐培, “南海局势:回顾与展望,” 南海战略态势感知计划, 北京大学海洋研究院, April 8, 2019, http://www.scspi.org/yjbg/index.htm.

23. See Ketian Vivian Zhang, "Chinese non-military coercion—Tactics and rationale," Brookings, January 22, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/chinese-non-military-coercion-tactics-and-rationale/.

24. John Reed and Valentina Romei, "Who dominates the economies of south-east Asia?" April 30, 2018, Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/898fa38e-4882-11e8-8ee8-cae73aab7ccb.

25. The ASEAN Secretariat and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, "Foreign Direct Investment and the Digital Economy in ASEAN," ASEAN Investment Report 2018, https://asean.org/storage/2018/11/ASEAN-Investment-Report-2018-for-Website.pdf.

26. John Reed and Valentina Romei, "Who dominates the economies of south-east Asia?"

27. Nina Silov, "The Pivot before the Pivot: U.S. Strategy to Preserve the Power Balance in Asia," International Security, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Spring 2016), pp. 45–88.

28. For data, see Pacific Forum, http://cc.pacforum.org/visits/?country1=375&country2=385&frommo=1&fromyr=1999&tomo=12&toyr=2019&bilateral=on.

29. “Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines Regarding the Treatment of United States Armed Forces Visiting the Philippines,”  https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/107852.pdf.

30. “Philippines agrees to 10-year pact allowing US military presence," Associated Press in Manila, April 27, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/27/philippines-us-military-presence-china-dispute.

31. "Remarks by President Bush and President Arroyo of the Philippines," U.S. State Department, October 18, 2003, https://2001-2009.state.gov/p/eap/rls/rm/2003/25454.htm.

32. Linda Robinson, Patrick B. Johnston, and Gillian S. Oak, "U.S. Special Operations Forces in the Philippines, 2001–2014," Rand Research Report, 2016, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1236.html.

33. "Philippines agrees to 10-year pact allowing US military presence."

34. Prashanth Parameswaran, "US-Philippines Alliance: Security Cooperation in the Headlines with Terror Aid Boost," The Diplomat, July 23, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/07/us-philippines-alliance-security-cooperation-in-the-headlines-with-terror-aid-boost/; "U.S. Marines and Armed Forces of the Philippines Launch Exercise KAMANDAG 2," U.S. Embassy in the Philippines, October 1, 2018, https://ph.usembassy.gov/us-marines-and-armed-forces-of-the-philippines-launch-exercise-kamandag-2/.

35. "Changi Naval Base," Singapore National Library Board, http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_504_2005-01-19.html.

36. Franz-Stefan Gady, "1st US Warships Port at Cam Ranh Bay Since End of Vietnam War," The Diplomat, October 5, 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/10/1st-us-warships-port-at-cam-ranh-bay-since-end-of-vietnam-war/.

37. Eugene Whong, "Vietnam Gets Six Patrol Boats from U.S. Signaling Closer Security Ties," Radio Free Asia, April 1, 2019, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/vn-metal-shark-04012019154518.html.

38. Oceans Policy Advisor, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy) at DOD, "U.S. Department of Defense Freedom of Navigation (FON) Program," February 28, 2017, https://policy.defense.gov/Portals/11/DoD%20FON%20Program%20Summary%2016.pdf?ver=2017-03-03-141350-380.

39. Ibid.; Department of Defense Report to Congress, Annual Freedom of Navigation Report Fiscal Year 2017, DOD, December 31, 2017, https://policy.defense.gov/Portals/11/FY17%20DOD%20FON%20Report.pdf?ver=2018-01-19-163418-053.

40. Mark J. Valencia, "’Quad’ cooperation in the South China Sea?" The Japan Times, December 14, 2017, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2017/12/14/commentary/japan-commentary/quad-cooperation-south-china-sea/#.XMCHLJNKjq1.

41. “Remarks with Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, and Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya at a Joint Press Availability for the U.S.-Japan 2+2 Ministerial.”