The United States and ASEAN: The Key to the South China Sea Conflict

By Anushka Kapahi
Staff Writer
6 October 2017

United States interests in the South China Sea (SCS) are diverse and chief among them is freedom of navigation. More than half of the global merchant fleet tonnage, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide, pass through the South China Sea. It serves as a massive global sea route that accounts for $1.2 trillion U.S. trade annually.

Freedom of navigation, in the SCS, therefore, is vital to the advancement of U.S. economic interests. China’s claims over a wide area of the SCS, and the building of artificial islands and military bases threaten those interests and need to be addressed through a comprehensive policy that preserves and protects American interests without escalating current tensions. The United States should further its naval presence, surveillance, and patrols in the region in response to an invitation from its allies among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states.

An increased naval presence supports several U.S. policy goals. First, freedom of navigation advances international commerce and trade activities in the Southeast Asian region. Second, it prevents China from frustrating the ability of the U.S. to project power and maintain a strong presence in this strategically vital maritime domains. Third, because the United States is responding to a request from ASEAN, China cannot frame an increase in the U.S. presence as outside interference or aggression.

Moreover, this policy signals strong support for stability and the rule of law. Freedom of navigation, surveillance, and peaceful U.S. military presence in the SCS assures Southeast Asian allies of support, promotes the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes, and encourages all parties to abide by international law. A strong U.S. presence will bolster the existing Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines, which is an integral part of international law despite Chinese rejection.

In support of this policy, the United States should prioritize the development of trade agreements with the Southeast Asian states. A mutually beneficial agreement between the United States and ASEAN will give the United States increased leverage over China and add to international pressure in opposition to China building artificial islands in international waters contrary to international law.

Some say the U.S. has bigger problems in Asia. They point to North Korea, and say we should let the countries in the SCS work it out on their own, or we risk provoking a direct U.S.-China clash. They are mistaken. The SCS is a platform that increases distrust between China and the United States. Restoring a strong U.S. naval presence in the SCS will establish a new baseline, enhancing U.S. interests with China across the board, including our ability to deal with the situation in North Korea. We cannot delay. We cannot risk Chinese escalation in the SCS. We should act to counterbalance China now.

The United States can gain further advantage over Chinese growing dominance in the region by working with the Southeast Asian states. A stronger U.S. naval presence in the region in response to an ASEAN invitation will ensure freedom of navigation and assure Southeast Asian allies of U.S. support. A stronger U.S. naval presence will deter Chinese expansion and promote the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes. A stronger U.S. naval presence will preserve and protect security and promote regional prosperity and peace.

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Anushka Kapahi is a first-year master's candidate studying International Affairs at the Elliott School at George Washington University. She is also a research associate at the NESA-Center for Strategic Studies.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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