Editor's Pick

U.S. Presidential Election and the Future of American Policy on the South China Sea

By: Daniel Yen With Editor's End Note

Due to the tremendous influence exerted overseas by the United States, the 2016 US presidential race is meaningful not just for Americans, but also for many of the other 7 billion people living around the world,. Ignoring the personalities, controversies, and drama of the candidates’ campaigns, and tossing aside their domestic policies, where Congress holds much of the real decision-making power, we can instead focus in on foreign policy, an area where the president will arguably make the largest lasting impact. Through meetings with other countries’ leaders, directing the secretary of defense’s and secretary of state’s actions, and making decisions as commander-in-chief, the president of the United States has enormous power in shaping the international political climate for years to come.

One of the tenser regions in the world currently is the South China Sea, with Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines all contesting the People’s Republic of China’s broad territorial claims to the area. In recent years, China has initiated an intensive program of land reclamation on the various reefs and islands within the “nine-dash line” which it maintains are its rightful borders. China also says that each of the islands and reefs in the area has its own continental shelf and therefore lays claim much of the water in the South China Sea as well. Its opponents have responded by continuing their own land reclamation projects, strengthening their militaries, voicing concern regarding the issue, and reaffirming their claims over the islands by occasionally sending naval ships into disputed waters.

These opposing nations have come into direct conflict with each other on multiple occasions. For example, in 2005, Chinese ships shot nine Vietnamese fishermen in its waters while detaining another eight, stating that the Vietnamese sailors robbed and fired on Chinese ships. There have also been warning shots fired between disputing countries’ navies on multiple occasions. Recently, Indonesia made news for blowing up other countries’ fishing boats that it claimed were fishing illegally in its waters. These incidents, however, pale in comparison to the April 1, 2001 aerial collision between an American intelligence aircraft and a PRC fighter plane that killed a Chinese pilot and ignited Sino-American tensions.

(A Chinese Type 052D Destroyer (Equivalent of the American Aegis Equipped Combat Ships), Part of the South Sea Fleet)

The US has long had a vested interest in countering Chinese territorial claims in the area, as the South China Sea serves as a major shipping lane for world trade, and in particular for oil. The United States under President Obama has been involved in this dispute, quoting international maritime law such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in supporting freedom of navigation in the region, even though the US has not rectified and is therefore not a signatory of that UN convention.

The next president will inherit this complex situation in the South China Sea, and must seek an effective solution that provides some combination of diffusing tension, protecting American trade interests, and assisting the US’s allies. We find that although both the Democratic and Republican frontrunners suggest a confrontational approach to the problem, that Hilary Clinton’s plans for the China and the South China Sea while be much less destructive to the worldwide international relations climate than Donald Trump’s.

Of the presidential contenders, Hilary Clinton has had the most extensive and direct experience with this issue. South China Sea tensions were one of her priorities during her tenure as Secretary of State, and she was outspoken regarding the situation. She repeatedly supported China’s regional rivals by declaring freedom of navigation and respect of international maritime law as an issue of national interest for the United States, implying that China’s territorial expansions in the area were in violation of these terms. China responded to these statements harshly, calling them attacks and warning that the US would only exacerbate the problem by rendering the situation an international or multilateral one. Clinton also testified before Congress supporting the Law of Sea Convention, strengthening the US’s power to aid other countries with territorial claims in the area. Her stance has not changed much since then. One of the sections of her foreign policy platform is titled “holding China accountable”, accusing China of being negligent and needlessly provocative. It calls out China for “aggressive actions”, promising that China will be liable for any and all irresponsible actions. Thus, we see that Hilary Clinton’s statements on the 2016 campaign trail reflect her record as Secretary of State in condemning China’s role in the South China Sea disputes. It appears that a Clinton presidency would for the most part maintain the Obama administration’s stance in the region, making statements opposing China’s territorial expansion and sustaining the threat of military action, while most likely not deploying any US armed forces.


(U.S. Littoral Combat Ship USS Fort Worth Sailing Near Disputed Chinese Island Followed by PLA Naval Battleship)

If Hilary Clinton seems to have had the most experience with the South China Sea situation, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump would appear to be the opposite of that. Many pundits call Trump an isolationist, and for good reason – his mantra of “making America great again” and having the US “win more” casts more of a spotlight on improving the US’s domestic situation, rather than the projecting American influence abroad. In addition, he has not mentioned the South China Sea in any of the twelve GOP debates. In the “positions’ portion of his website, however, he does place an emphasis on US-China trade reform, and mentions that he will deploy the US military “appropriately” in the South China Sea. While this move would put two major world powers at risk of direct conflict with each other, this is not the only incendiary policy he outlines in his platform. He says he will “declare China a currency manipulator”, which China would probably deny vehemently, with no consequences. He also declares that he will bring an end to Chinese intellectual property theft, where he includes not only the various cyberattacks that he claims China has committed, but also the Chinese government’s laws which in many cases allow foreign companies access to China on the condition that they share technologies with domestic China enterprises. Trump does not seem to realize, though, that the US has no power to influence either of these. To the former, China could always deny or shift responsibility to individuals and claim they acted independently. The latter would be practically infeasible, because Trump ought to know better than anyone that China holds all the cards at the negotiating table with foreign companies, with its enormous economy and domestic consumer market. If US were to institute a zero-tolerance policy on technology sharing, as Trump declares he will do, American companies would be essentially destroyed. Let’s examine one instance of “forced technology transfer”, as Trump calls it – General Motors. If GM were to pull out of China because it could not comply to Chinese laws that demand technology sharing with Chinese carmakers, the Chinese people might be a little bit mad about not being able to buy a Cadillac or a Buick, but they would just buy more European, Japanese, and Korean cars instead. GM would lose out big in China, damaging the company back home in the US and costing American jobs, while the Chinese people would not suffer, and other countries’ companies would make more money. In short, if all of Donald Trump’s plans for China were to be implemented, the US would be put at risk of war with a nuclear power and Sino-American relations would become tenser and more u nstable than any point in recent memory.

Of the two presumptive candidates, Hilary Clinton offers a plan that seems to maintain a somewhat stable relationship between the US and China in the South China Sea that will not be very different, if slightly more confrontational, than the past eight years. Nobody knows, however, if President Donald Trump would actually implement the ideas he currently espouses. Perhaps his glorious negotiating abilities will be able to bring peace and consensus to the South China Sea. Perhaps his isolationists instinct with cause him to withdraw completely from any conflict in the region. But as of now, Hilary Clinton offers a clearer and more sustainable future for the South China Sea, and by extension, Sino-American relations.


Editor’s End Note:

As mentioned by the author of this article, the US has not rectified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is mainly due to two reasons. First is that the convention mandates that all nations, when conducting underwater development (such as deep sea oil drilling), to share the relevant technologies with developing countries and to protect the interest of developing countries (such as maintaining export prices) when excavating natural resources. This clause was rejected by the U.S. as potential hazard to its companies.

The other major reason is that the UN convention states any region within 200 nautical miles of a body of land could be used as exclusive economic zone by the country it borders, which has sovereignty over all resources. It further establishes contiguous zones (24 nautical miles offshore), in which costal countries could exercise certain sovereignty rights. The U.S., as the largest naval power, constantly involves itself in overseas military affairs. Thus, by not rectifying the UN convention, the U.S. established its own naval code of conduct in which it considers all contiguous zones and exclusive economic zones “international water”, and proclaims that the U.S. navy could act without interference.

Thus, by not rectifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the U.S. gets to independently set rules for what it calls freedom of navigation, through which the U.S. justifies sailing near disputed islands in the South China Sea. It is the same action of non-rectification however, that has resulted in backlashes both domestically and internationally. China for example, has criticized the U.S. for exploiting all the privileges of a UNCLOS signatory such as establishing contiguous zones and exclusive economic zones, while not obeying to clauses that pertain to military operations in costal waters. Without the UNCLOS, the U.S. indeed could not effectively argue against this accusation. Furthermore, being a country that’s not directly bordering the South China Sea, U.S. and its ally Japan have been urged not to entangle in this regional dispute, both by China and their own citizens.


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