As America combats the COVID-19 pandemic, adversaries are using this opportunity to exploit the United States’ weakened military posture to deepen their military foothold in vulnerable regions throughout the globe. The principal adversary to capitalize on this circumstance is the Chinese Communist Party. Recently, the US Navy sent the amphibious assault ship USS America along with the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery to the South China Sea in an attempt to address the latest international maritime dispute between China and Malaysia. 

Hostilities began when the drillship West Capella, under contract to the Malaysian oil company Petronas, commenced survey activities last fall in waters that are rich with natural resources and within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Malaysia’s coastline. Unrest subsequently ensued because Vietnam and China also claim these waters. According to China, its purported claim is legal since the Luconia Shoals, also within Malaysia’s EEZ, is an extension of Chinese territory as part of the contested Spratly Islands.

Within days of West Capella starting exploration activities, China Coast Guard and maritime militia ships, Vietnamese maritime militia ships, and ships of the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) concentrated in the disputed waters and conducted a series of patrols and presence operations to demonstrate hard power to sway rivals to withdraw their forces. In response, the US State Department singled out China’s aggressive posture and stated, “The United States is concerned by reports of China’s repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states.” It also said that China “should cease its bullying behavior and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilizing activity.”

This recent example is not the only time when China intruded into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone. In 2015, Malaysian maritime authorities observed a China Coast Guard vessel entering and anchoring off the Luconia Shoals for unknown reasons. Then serving in the prime minister’s cabinet, Shahidan Kassim wrote in a public statement, “We have never received any official claims from them [China] and they said the island [Luconia Shoals] belongs to them, but the country is 1,400 kilometres (870 mi) away. We are taking diplomatic action but in whatever approach, they have to get out of our national waters.” The latest revelations show that diplomatic measures have neither eased the unstable situation nor assisted in Malaysia regaining its maritime sovereignty.

Malaysia’s dependence on China as its economy’s main investor does not help its current position. Eugene Mark Min Hui—an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies—wrote an analysis paper on this topic in April 2019, titled Malaysia-China Economic Relations Post-GE14: Rhetoric vs Reality. He finds that despite the then-ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s rhetoric against Chinese investments in Malaysia, once in power, the government sought to deepen economic ties with China. To support his argument, Hui cites figures from the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE), which says Malaysia’s exports to China increased 10.3 percent, imports increased 6.38 percent, and overall trade amounted to approximately US $720 billion. The renewal of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) in Malaysia, a US $11 billion rail project that is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, serves as a testament to the deep bilateral economic relations.

Malaysia’s military reliance on Chinese technological ingenuity is an added challenge. In 2017, Malaysia purchased four 68-meter Keris-class littoral mission ships (LMS) from China. The first ship of this class was commissioned in January of this year, with the chief of the Malaysian Navy in attendance. The second ship, Sundang, was expected to be delivered in April prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Ironically, the mission of the four LMS, which will be under the jurisdiction of the RMN Eastern Fleet, is to assert the readiness and sovereignty of eastern Malaysia’s maritime waters—the same waters China and Malaysia contest.

In his National Security Strategy, President Donald Trump declared that “China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda,” which ultimately “risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.” The priorities of his administration in the Indo-Pacific would be to “reinforce our commitment to freedom of the seas and the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes in accordance with international law.” It is evident that the forward presence of the US Navy in these disputed waters, with the rapid deployment of the USS America and other warships, is the practical execution of this vision.

Understandably, there will be some critics, both domestic and foreign, who oppose America continuing as the world’s “policeman.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan highlight their concerns. To address this apprehension, consider the words of Pope John XXIII in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris:

Today the universal common good presents us with problems which are world-wide in their dimensions; problems, therefore, which cannot be solved except by a public authority with power, organization and means co-extensive with these problems, and with a world-wide sphere of activity. Consequently, the moral order itself demands the establishment of some such general form of public authority.

Pope John calls for the intervention of a “public authority with power” since “the rulers of individual nations, being all on an equal footing, largely fail in their efforts to achieve this [the preservation of the security and peace of the whole world]” because “their authority is not sufficiently influential.” 

Many private citizens and elected officials will question whether the United States has the legitimate right to exercise authority in securing the sovereignty of other nations. Various international experts will declare that this public authority ought to reside with the United Nations or, in matters pertaining to maritime affairs, the International Maritime Organization. So can the United States assist in the self-defense of nations incapable of defending their own? The best way to answer this question is to apply the classical just war tradition to the current situation while fully acknowledging that the United States has not issued a declaration of war against the cited aggressor, China.

The just war tradition is framed around three core principles undergirding just decision (jus ad bellum): legitimate authority, just cause, and right intent. In regards to the criteria of legitimate authority, the United States has a military alliance with both the Philippines and Malaysia. Article II of the Mutual Defense Treaty, signed in 1951 between the Philippines and the United States, states, “The Parties separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” Article IV continues, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.” In the case of Malaysia, it is a member of the Five Power Defense Arrangements—which also includes Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. Because Australia and New Zealand signed a security treaty with the United States (the ANZUS Treaty), Malaysia and America cooperate militarily, such as through training and joint exercises.

To find out if the cause of our intervention is morally just and right intent exists, let us review the statement released by Pacific Fleet commander Adm. John Aquilino:

We are committed to a rules-based order in the South China Sea and we will continue to champion freedom of the seas and the rule of law. The Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas and fisheries. Millions of people in the region depend on those resources for their livelihood.

Defending one’s neighbor from political and military coercion falls under St. Augustine’s definition of the just use of force, formed around the virtue of charity. For this situation, the United States can be seen as practicing the ultimate form of diplomatic charity, “loving your neighbor as yourself,” in assisting powerless, weak nations when the international rule of law cannot be maintained to ensure their security. Though China may disagree, the criteria of right intent are met because the United States, as Thomas Aquinas writes, “intend[s] the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.” The United States opposes a hegemonic power in the South China Sea disrupting the free flow of merchant traffic, stealthily invading neighboring states, and disregarding the maritime, political order established by the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

The problems I illustrate will not diminish in nature or scope in the foreseeable future. Tensions in the Indo-Pacific region likely will increase and could result in international calamities, resulting in the deaths of innocent sailors. Nevertheless, to achieve some resolve, no matter how limited the outcomes may be, an undeterred, forward presence of the US Navy with the faithful cooperation of its maritime allies is required to prevent ever-expanding Chinese hegemony in the Western Pacific.