By Carl Thayer
I would like to flesh out David Brown’s proposal by offering the following: the prime aim of United States maritime strategy in the South China Sea should be to create circumstances where China would have to accept the status quo or escalate. The United States should pursue an indirect strategy by leveraging its alliance with the Philippines and security ties with Vietnam and engaging in peaceful maritime pursuits aimed at deterring China. The United States should not directly confront China with its own naval forces.
Prior to the oilrig crisis Vietnam proposed a trilateral security dialogue with the United States and Japan. This appears to have received a cautious response from Japan but it is still on the table. A track two trilateral meeting of think tanks is scheduled in Washington later this year.
In present circumstances a formal track one trilateral arrangement should be negotiated and serve as a venue for working out a multilateral strategy to deter China. Such a strategy should embrace Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and the United States and involve stepped up cooperation among their coast guards. Japan has already reached out to the Philippines and Vietnam.
The United States and Vietnam should expedite the agreement for cooperation between their Coast Guards. So far the training has taken place on land in the form of short courses. The U.S. Coast Guard should be deployed to Vietnamese waters for joint training and involve the exchange of observers on each other’s ships. Vietnam recently joined the Proliferation Security Initiative. This provides an opportunity for the United States to assist Vietnam further develop its capacity for maritime domain awareness.
The time appears ripe for the United States to begin relaxing its restrictions on the sale of military equipment and services to Vietnam. It has been reported that in the past Vietnam has expressed interest in purchasing U.S. maritime surveillance aircraft and coastal radar. The United States could deploy a model of the aircraft that Vietnam is considering and conduct demonstration flights with Vietnamese military personnel on board.
In addition, U.S. Navy maritime surveillance aircraft based in the Philippines under the recent agreement on enhanced defense cooperation, could be deployed to Vietnam on a temporary basis. They could conduct joint maritime surveillance missions with their Vietnamese counterparts. U.S. military personnel could fly on Vietnamese reconnaissance planes as observers, and vice versa.
Regional security analysts expect China to mount aggressive naval displays in the South China Sea every year from May to August moving forward. This provides an opportunity for the United States and Japan to organize a series of continuing maritime exercises and surveillance flights with Vietnam and the Philippines just prior to the arrival of Chinese forces and throughout the period from April to August each year. The details of all operations should be completely transparent to all regional states including China.
An indirect strategy provides the means for the United States to give practical expression to its declaratory policy of opposing intimidation and coercion to settle territorial disputes. An indirect strategy does not require the United States to directly confront China. This strategy puts the onus on China to decide the risk of confronting mixed formations of naval vessels and aircraft involving the United States, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
These combined maritime and air forces would operate in international waters and airspace that transverse China’s nine-dash line. The objective would be to maintain a continuous naval and air presence to deter China from using intimidation and coercion against Vietnam and the Philippines. Deterrence could be promoted by interchanging the naval and aircrews in all exercises. The scope and intensity of these exercises could be altered in response to the level of tensions.
Dr. Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, Australia. Read more by Professor Thayer here.