During his visit to Vietnam, US President Donald Trump offered his services as a mediator to the South China Sea claimants. "If I can help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know," Trump said in comments during a meeting in Hanoi with Vietnam's president, Tran Dai Quang. He also stressed that he was "a very good mediator and arbitrator."
However, Trump's boastful offer has only received tepid response from Hanoi and Manila. Tran said Vietnam believes in handling disputes on the South China Sea through peaceful negotiations and on the basis of international laws. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano thanked Trump for the offer, but said that claimant countries, including China, have to find solutions as a group on their own.
Obviously, China will not be interested in Trump's services as mediator in the South China Sea disputes. Beijing's consistent stance holds that territorial disputes can only be solved through bilateral negotiations by claimant countries and security in the South China Sea can be maintained by China and ASEAN countries and external powers should not step in.
Washington has already been too active in the South China Sea issue. During the Obama era, US intervention in South China Sea affairs reached a climax. It is unknown if Trump's self-recommendation is a result of his impulsive style or comes from careful consideration of the issues.
The South China Sea situation has changed a lot since the Obama era. The Philippines and Vietnam are trying to solve the maritime disputes peacefully with China. Regional countries have gradually realized that intervention by the US and Japan will only add complexity to the disputes and make geopolitical competition the theme of the South China Sea issue.
Washington and Tokyo incited the Philippines and Vietnam to go against China, which failed to bring any concrete benefits to the two countries. Their cooperation with China was greatly affected. The domestic development of the two countries was jeopardized, and their security environment tenuous, prompting them to rethink and adjust their strategies.
The South China Sea arbitration case, which imperiled regional stability, was handed down more than a year ago, but China-Philippine relations have already turned for the better, with cooperation and negotiations back on track. Meanwhile, China and Vietnam have attached more importance to managing maritime conflicts and prioritized party-to-party and state-to-state relations. If the outside world really wants to promote regional peace and cooperation, it should encourage such interactivity and prevent external forces from interfering in the current positive momentum.
The lukewarm response of Vietnam and the Philippines toward Trump's offer indicates that US policy on the South China Sea needs adjustment. The enhanced US presence in the South China Sea is aimed at containing China's increasing influence, but it has created a tense situation on the sea and a strained relationship between the Philippines and Vietnam and China. This is contrary to the interests of Manila and Hanoi and poses potential threats to the entire region.
The US should be clear that the South China Sea is not the Caribbean Sea. No country in ASEAN wants to fall into the orbit of colluding with the US and countering China. The South China Sea should become the world's safest sea lane under the most active international cooperation, instead of a geopolitical playing field dominated by the US. Washington needs to exercise strategic restraint in the region rather than acting willfully.