The US, he said, stood for a free and open Indo-Pacific and was working with countries throughout the region to tackle both shared security challenges and the coronavirus pandemic.
And then Esper got to the point.
“The devastating worldwide impact of the coronavirus outbreak reinforces the necessity of a rules-based international order rooted in transparency, openness, honesty and other shared values. In this era of globalisation, the antidote to a viral contagion is communication and collaboration, not disinformation and deception,” he said.
“For this reason I am concerned that while the United States and our partners focus on supporting one another in these challenging times, the Chinese Communist Party continues to engage in systematic rule breaking, corrosion and other malign activities.
“Most concerning for me is the People’s Liberation Army continues its aggressive behaviour in the East and South China Seas, including sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat, harassing Malaysian oil and gas development, escorting Chinese fishing fleets into Indonesia’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone and militarising occupied features [small islands China has built on reclaimed land in the South China Sea] in direct contravention of China’s commitments under international law.
“In doing so the Chinese Community Party has bullied ASEAN nations out of an estimated $US2.6 trillion in potential offshore oil and gas revenue, not to mention fishing grounds that millions of people depend on for their livelihoods.”
China claims about 90 per cent of South China Sea waters that historically belonged to others. The dispute also involves Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan, who all claim at least some territory and waters in the South China Sea and Indonesia, which has an overlapping claim to a disputed section of water.
It’s a weeping sore, a constant bone of contention between China and its neighbours, all of whom rely on the economic giant for trade and none of whom are happy about its increasingly assertive posture.
Esper’s speech, explicit in singling out China, stood in sharp rhetorical contrast to the tip-toeing around the rising superpower that occurred in the Obama era.
But being unhappy and saying – let alone doing – something about it are two different things and while the US, under President Donald Trump, has pushed back against China in a way that the Obama administration did not, that doesn’t mean that south-east Asian nations will follow suit.
The US, governments in the region judge, is unreliable under Trump. It may remain a useful hedge against potential Chinese dominance of the Indo-Pacific but trust has been lost in it as the guarantor of regional security.
Hardening its China-versus-the-region rhetoric won’t be enough and nor will the increased rotation of US carrier groups through the region, joint naval exercises, freedom of navigation operations or speeches about shared values.
The strategic environment has changed: China’s island-building program in the South China Sea has established military facts on the water, as former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull recently put it, that did not exist a decade ago. Thus, the calculus has changed.
Esper’s speech, which follows US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent statement rejecting China’s claim to about 90 per cent of the South China Sea, will further ratchet up tensions between the two superpowers.
It underscores that even as the US is smashed by the pandemic, Washington has realised the urgency with which it must respond to China’s growing preeminence in south-east Asia.
But a more sustained and systematic commitment is required to the region and the ever-present risk of a presidential tweet undoing a promise lingers.
After suggesting he wanted to visit China later this year, if possible, Esper’s speech finished on a bleak, near-Orwellian note:
“If we are not careful we will find ourselves in a situation where China is calling the shots, and we have a completely different international order, or at least regional order, that puts China at the top and really it’s based on Chinese values. I don’t think that’s what any of us want to see happen in the long run.”
He may or may not be correct: which Big Brother south-east Asia prefers, and which it will get, remains an open question.
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James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.