In 2011, President Barack Obama made the security of the Asia-Pacific region “a top priority” for the United States. Nine years later, tensions with China have escalated dramatically. Fissures between the U.S. and China encompass a host of national security priorities: trade, cybersecurity, election integrity, Taiwan, North Korea, and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. All together, these tensions cast a dark cloud over the future of U.S.-China relations, as well as the national and economic security of both Washington and Beijing.
Over the last twenty years, China has become increasingly assertive in its territorial disputes, unilaterally declaring sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea and developing military installations to defend its claims. Thus far, these territorial and maritime disputes have pitted China against countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
ASEAN tends to oppose Chinese military expansion in the region, viewing Chinese aggression as a threat to the bloc’s collective economic and security sovereignty. U.S. and ASEAN alignment on the issues of preservation of the freedom of navigation and the pursuit of peaceful resolutions to territorial disputes have resulted in a significant expansion in security cooperation. Consequently, the U.S. has boosted security assistance to the region as part of American regional security strategies.
Over the past ten years, the U.S. has dramatically expanded security assistance to the ASEAN region. Between FY2011 and FY2020, the U.S. provided a total of $1.93 billion in security assistance to ASEAN, a more than 50% increase in security assistance from the last ten-year fiscal period. The increase is the result of additional funding for existing programs and the implementation of new programs, including the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative, Anti-Terrorism Program, new train and equip programs, and increases to the Foreign Military Finance program. It is also important to note that the U.S. has increased funding to the countries most vulnerable to Chinese revanchism, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, and the Philippines.
While these programs demonstrate a U.S. commitment to building security capacity, doubt exists as to whether U.S. assistance is effectively deterring China from acting unilaterally against key countries in the region. China experts Gregory Poling and Bonnie Glaser write that “U.S. leadership has been evident on only one of these maritime issues,” referencing North Korea. On other maritime issues, the U.S. has not been “effective” in coordinating with ASEAN countries to mitigate Chinese military incursions in disputed territory and international waters.
Recent incidents along the Spratly Islands reflect this dearth of regional coordination. Known to be a rich fishing area with deep hydrocarbon reserves, the Spratly Islands are claimed by multiple countries, including nominal allies and ASEAN members, making security coordination difficult. The U.S. has called on all countries to resolve their disputes peacefully without ratcheting up conflict. But Beijing’s construction of military outposts along the perimeter of the Islands and its regular patrols of the waters have impeded fishing and hydrocarbon activities, giving Beijing de facto control. Chinese encroachment on the Islands has expanded Beijing’s leverage in any future settlement and provided China with a strategic economic advantage through access to new resources. The Trump administration officially promotes a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” and administration officials tout joint exercises between the U.S. and the Philippines, as well as increasing overall assistance levels to Vietnam, as evidence that the U.S. is doing more to engage with countries of the region. However, security relationships with ASEAN have been hurt by the Trump administration’s disdain for multilateralism. With the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the “America First” speech at his first ASEAN summit, President Trump’s ability to unite the countries of the region with a coordinated security strategy has failed to yield results. It remains to be seen whether security assistance alone can bolster countries in the region as a bulwark against China.