A handful of Democrats and Republicans have expressed an interest in running for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination while others are considering. Whoever is elected as the next president of the United States, he/she should place higher priority on the South China Sea (SCS). Why?
First, the SCS has emerged as a central aspect of regional geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. The issue has been high on agenda of both track I and track II diplomacy, from day-to-day discussions to regional strategic calculations and beyond. It encompasses both traditional and non-traditional security issues, and engages major players in Indo-Pacific, including the U.S., China, India, Japan, ASEAN, and its member states. More importantly, the SCS is widely seen as a litmus test of Beijing’s strategic intentions and actions, and of Washington’s resolve.
Second, U.S. policy towards the disputes in the SCS has been largely reactive. In retrospect, Washington has modified the content of its policy in response to tensions triggered by China’s assertive posture in the SCS. For example, the first U.S. policy statement on the Spratlys and the SCS was released in 1995 in response to growing instability deriving from China’s move to seek control of Mischief Reef. Meanwhile, when then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum that the U.S. has national interest in freedom of navigation, it was a corollary of a series of aggressive Chinese actions, including harassment of the USNS Impeccable. A U.S. State Department document, Limits in the Seas, released in consequence of China’s unilateral actions, particularly the HD-981 episode, found that Beijing’s 9-dash line is inconsistent with international laws.