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ASEAN Wants a U.S. Counterbalance to Chinese Regional Ambitions

Richard Javad Heydarian

Security, Americas


The ASEAN-U.S. Maritime exercises were aimed at China, not directly in terms of military drills and assets, but instead strategically, namely by signaling shared concerns over rising maritime tensions in the region.

Reflecting on the future of Sino-American competition in Asia, the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew argued that there is a widely “held consensus that the U.S. presence in the region should be sustained,” because “military presence does not need to be used to be useful,” and that American “presence [alone] makes a difference and makes for peace and stability in the region.” An enlightened realist, Lee saw this formula most relevant in the case of the South China Sea disputes, since “China will not let an international court arbitrate territorial disputes in the South China Sea”—a claim that proved prophetic, when China categorically rejected the Arbitral Tribunal award at The Hague years later.

For the Singaporean leader, the best antidote to Chinese revanchist instincts and defiance of international law is “the [continued] presence of U.S. firepower in the Asia-Pacific” so that the “[United Nations] Law of the Sea [will] prevail.” In short, he saw international law effect so long as it’s anchored by America’s naval prowess. And it’s precisely within this context, namely Southeast Asian nations’ desire for an American counterbalance to Chinese hegemonic ambitions, that one should understand the relevance of the inaugural ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise (AUMX) in early-September. The five-days-long exercise covered a vast expanse of waters, stretching from the Sattahip naval base in Chonburi province in Gulf of Tonkin to Cape Cà Mau on the Cà Mau Peninsula in Vietnam.

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