However, the South China Sea issue is perhaps the forerunner of a new security paradigm in Southeast Asia – one in which the security interests of the US and many Southeast Asian nations increasingly diverge.
The US formulates its interests in the South China Sea as “protection of order, keeping of regional security (including the safety of allies) and freedom of navigation”. But in fact, the main goal of the US is full control over the region.
However, the interests of the Southeast Asian claimants – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – in the territory of the islands and the sea space in the South China Sea are completely different in nature and priority. They want to realize their sovereignty claims and access to maritime resources in what they consider their legitimate exclusive economic zones, unlike the US, which has no territorial or jurisdictional claims in the area.
The US also says that they are protecting the freedom of navigation. But the Southeast Asian claimants do not share the same concerns as the US on this issue. Of course, all the Southeast Asian countries – claimants and non-claimants – want and need the seas to be open and free for commerce. However, China has never threatened commercial shipping is unlikely to threaten it in peacetime, because China’s economy depends on this.
But the United States purposefully combines the notions of commercial freedom with the freedom to conduct military intelligence, surveillance and the use of reconnaissance probes against China and other countries in the region. At the same time, they argue that China supervision of the routes of military ships and aircraft in the exclusively Chinese economic zone violates the freedom of navigation. But in response, China declares that these actions do not violate the right of free navigation, unlike the actions of the United States, which abuse the deployment of their own armed forces. US surveillance missions include active “tickling” of China’s coastal defenses to provoke and observe a response, interference with shore-to-ship and submarine communications, and tracking China’s new nuclear submarines for potential targeting as they enter and exit their base. In China's view, this is not a passive activity to collect intelligence information, which most states usually allow. In addition, such activities do not comply with the principles of "freedom of navigation", since the United States uses the ocean not only for peaceful purposes, as it is required by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The main concern is that the competition between China and the United States for influence and military superiority in the region can affect the domestic policies of the countries of South-East Asia, thus fueling the conflict between different social groups. Similar events took place during the Cold War and are likely to happen again nowadays. The political support of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations under President Donald Trump is weakening, and some ASEAN countries are reconsidering their position to China.