Opinion: Re-Examining the US Involvement in the South China Sea

Fishing boats sail across the Qiongzhou Strait as the summer fishing moratorium ended in the South China Sea, Aug. 16, 2021. Photo by Xinhua/Yang Guanyu

The rising tension in the Southeast Asia region, still the biggest concern, is now centred around the South China Sea dispute. Because of its strategic trading location and the presence of valuable resources such as gas and oil, the sea serves as an advantage in terms of resources and trade, benefiting each country. Consequently, each nation aims to assert control over the sea. China's demand for territorial control over the sea has led to concerns among the claimant states, which include Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei. Recently, China has been demonstrating its efforts to expand its power in the region by increasing the size of islands or consolidating them. Due to China's rise, internal actors are increasingly involved in this issue. The United States is a significant player, working to counter China's rise by improving its relations with Asian countries aiming to bolster their capabilities to resist China's increasing power.

Why is the South China Sea significant for the United States?

The South China Sea contains the most important geopolitical influence in the Indo-Pacific region and is widespread in global politics. The United States holds a significant security interest in safeguarding its regional allies. Noticeably, the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America (MTD) was signed on August 30, 1951, by their representatives in Washington, DC. This treaty allows the US to fully support the Philippines if another state attacks it. Plus, the United States later entered defence treaties with Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. As a superpower country, the US must ensure its credibility and commitment to protect its allies, as they are the claimant states in this conflict, and for those countries to stand against China is deeply unlikely. Safeguarding its regional allies also permits the US to project its power in the region while also responding to this maritime crisis.

Particularly, countries like the Philippines would regard the US as a regional security provider, and the maintenance of securing both countries’ defenses helps ensure the national security and interests of both countries. In 2022, US. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin mentioned that he will  “focus on alliances, partnerships and international rules as vital and” as a “profound source of stability” in the Indo-Pacific. This reflects a firm commitment from the US to its allies in the region to stand against China’s aggression in the over-claim maritime boundaries. The US has committed $80 million to infrastructure military bases investment at the five current bases: the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, and Lumbia Air Base in Mindanao. 

Ensuring freedom of navigation is one of the US’s top priorities. Freedom of navigation is a strategic principle for the US, especially in the South China Sea, where trillions of dollars in commerce transit each year. The principle of freedom of navigation allows every state to travel and utilize the sea for appropriate purposes without interference from the limitations imposed by coastal states. The South China Sea carries nearly one-third of global trade and is rich in natural resources, including oil and natural gas. In a scenario where China tries to disrupt this trade, this will damage the global supply chain and the economies of other countries. Freedom of navigation is very critical for the United States as the world's leading economy as it maintains the flow of global trade and accesses the treasury of natural resources; therefore, it is important to secure free and open access to navigation, which is why the United States has been sending its warships to go through the region and deter China about the access of the sea to other countries, especially its allies. Recently, China has continued its militarisation in the South China Sea by deploying anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles in Spratly Island outposts. In response, the United States sent its naval vessel, the USS Milius, a guided missile destroyer in 2023 to respond to the Chinese aggression. 

It is not surprising to see the United States has a firm commitment to the region, considering its geopolitical interests and ensuring its credibility with its allies in Southeast Asia. Ensuring its credibility and safeguarding its allies as a superpower is tremendously significant to flexing its muscles against its rival, China. This ongoing global political tension will keep on rising if there is no common understanding among the claimant states in these conflicts since each claimant has already deployed their military equipment in the region. Unexpected armistice conflicts can potentially happen at any time.

Morn Piseth is a junior student studying International Relations at IISPP. He is a senior article writer for The SEED Cambodia and has completed an exchange study at the University of Central Missouri in the United States in International Studies. 

Sokchea Chihor is a sophomore student majoring in International Relations at the Institute for International Studies and Public Policy. Her research interests lie in geopolitical competition, socioeconomics, and Indo-Pacific competitions. 

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