THE PAPER | The United States’s Interests in the South China Sea
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THE PAPER | The United States’s Interests in the South China Sea

By Lidya C. Sinaga
Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), Indonesia

THE PAPER | The United States’s Interests in the South China Sea

Image Attribute: Guided-missile destroyer U.S.S. Halsey and the guided-missile cruiser U.S.S. Antietam participate in a maneuvering exercise in the South China Sea on October 23, 2014. Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license

“We do not have a position on the legal merits of the competing sovereignty claims to the islands, but we do have a position under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on the potential maritime claims.” [1]

It has been argued that 2009 was not only a turning point regarding China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute, but also a turning point regarding the US position in this dispute. On 23 July 2009, Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, signed TAC at the Sixteenth ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). This was the US ‚Pivot‛, the starting point for the ‚back to Asia‛ policy. The Obama administration wished to enhance US presence in Southeast Asia.[2] The US policy on the SCS was made clear one year later, when Hillary Clinton attended the Seventeenth ARF in Hanoi, Vietnam. Clinton clearly declared that the United States has a national interest in the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.[3]

However, this was not the first time that the United States declared an interest in the SCS. On 10 May 1995, the United States issued a US Department of State Daily Press Briefing, which stated that maintaining freedom of navigation in the region is a fundamental interest of the United States. The United States clarified its position by saying that:

“The US takes no position on the legal merits of the competing claims to sovereignty over the various island, reefs, atolls, and cays in the South China Sea‛. The United States would, however, view with serious concern any maritime claim or restriction on maritime activity in the South China Sea that was not consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS.”[4]

The United States has consistently used the issue of freedom of navigation as its primary reason for showing interest in the South China Sea. Since the ‘pivot’ in 2009, the United States consistently has raised this issue at annual ARF Meetings. In 2011, at the first East Asia Summit (EAS) attended by US President Barack Obama, the US restated its previous position that it takes no position in the dispute, but that freedom of navigation is its core interest.[5]

However, according to Fravel, the US has two principal interests in the South China Sea. First is the freedom of navigation. Here the US refers to Articles 87 of the UNCLOS, which declares that ‚The high seas are open to all States, whether coastal or land-locked. Freedom of the high seas is exercised under the conditions laid down by this Convention and by other rules of international law. It comprises, inter alia, both for coastal and land-locked States: (a) freedom of navigation; ...‛.[6] The US asserts it has legitimate economic and military interests in freedom of navigation in the SCS. According to Glaser, more than US 1 trillion dollars’ worth of the US trade comes through the SCS every year.[7] In addition, US naval vessels from the US West Coast and Japan pass through the South China Sea on their way to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. The second principal US interest is peace and stability in Southeast Asia region. This relates to trade and economic development – any disruption to the security of sea-lanes in the SCS would affect cross-border trade and investment.[8]

The United States has raised these principal interests in the SCS since it poses several security threats. According to Fravel, since the 2001 incident in which a US reconnaissance plane and a Chinese jet fighter collided [9], China has tried to restrict US military activities in this zone, especially regarding surveillance and reconnaissance. Furthermore, the modernization of the PLA Navy poses a challenge to US Naval vessels in the SCS. [10] Accordingly, in light of these security threats in the SCS, Fravel also argued that the US has to maintain three interests: ‚its commitments to allies in the region, its stable and cooperative relations with China, and finally its neutrality regarding the sovereignty of land features‛. [11]

Therefore, the US’s support to the Philippines can be put in the context of the US commitment to its ally. The Philippines, one of the claimant states in the South China Sea dispute, is a US ally based on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Article VI provides the mechanism for the two countries to respond if there is an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific, or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.[12] Although there is debate about whether the South China Sea is a part of the US obligation under the treaty[13], President Obama seemed to make it clear on his visit to the Philippines in May 2014 when he stated that: "… our commitment to defend the Philippines is ironclad and the United States will keep that commitment, because allies never stand alone."[14] Moreover, the US and the Philippines signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014 which updated and upgraded their defense commitments.[15]

Since the US declared its renewed interest in the South East Asian region, the SCS dispute has been mentioned in other ARF and EAS participants’ statements. Initially China did not expect the international exposure of the SCS dispute, but since Vietnam and Indonesia chaired the ASEAN in 2010 and 2011 respectively, ongoing exposure is inevitable. However, in 2012, when ASEAN was chaired by Cambodia, a close economic partner of China, ASEAN failed to issue a joint communique regarding the SCS dispute. This was because Cambodia refused to incorporate the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident into the final document of ASEAN Ministerial Meeting. At the ASEAN Summit of November 2012, ASEAN and China also failed to negotiate a multilateral Code of Conduct (CoC) for the SCS. ASEAN has not yet reached a consensus on a multilateral code as four of the six SCS claimants were ASEAN member states. Indeed China insists on negotiating bilaterally with ASEAN members.

The disagreement between ASEAN member countries is actually unfavorable for regional security, and as argued by Emmers, has reduced the strategic benefits which are provided by US re-balancing strategy in Southeast Asia, something that is not desirable for the US from its greater involvement in the Southeast Asia region since regional peace and stability in Southeast Asia is one of the principal US interests in the SCS. 

Cite This Article:

Sinaga, Lidya C.: China's Assertive Foreign Policy in South China Sea Under Xi Jinping: Its Impact on United States and Australian Foreign Policy. In: Journal of ASEAN Studies 3 (2015), 2, pp. 133-149. URN: / Download the Paper - LINK

Publication Details:

Journal of ASEAN Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2015), pp. 133-149 ©2015 by CBDS Bina Nusantara University and Indonesian Association for International Relations ISSN 2338-1361 print / ISSN 2338-1353 electronic

This document is made available under a CC BY-NC Licence (Attribution-NonCommercial). 
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[1] US Department of State, ‘U.S. Department of State Daily Press Briefing’, 10 May 1995, retrieved 10 May 2015,

[2] Manyin, ME, Garcia, MJ, Morrison WM, ‘U.S. Accession to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC)’, CRS Report for Congress, 5 May 2009, retrieved 21 May 2015,

[3] R Emmers, ‘The US Rebalancing Strategy: Impact on the South China Sea’, National Security College, retrieved 21 May 2015, .

[4] US Department of State, op.cit

[5] R Emmers, op.cit. 41 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

[6] B S Glaser, ‘Armed Clashes in the South China Sea’, New York, Council on Foreign Relations, 2012, p. 4

[7] M T Fravel, ‘US Policy Towards the Disputes in the South China Sea Since 1995’, Policy Report, March 2014, p. 2.

[8]Incident happened when a US EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a China’s F-8 fighter jet collided near Hainan Island.

[9]M T Fravel, op.cit.

[10]  Ibid.

[11] Yale Law School, ‘Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines’, 30 August 1951, retrieved 10 May 2015,

[12] Some in the Philippines refer to the 1999 diplomatic letter from the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Thomas Hubbard, to the Philippines' Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon, which affirmed William Cohen’s statement that the South China Sea is considered as part of the Pacific area, to ensure that it is part of the treaty. Fonbuena, C, ‘Old letter of US envoy details US pledge to defend West PH Sea’, 14 May 2014, retrieved 21 May 2015,

[13] Fonbuena, C, ‘Obama: U.S. commitment to PH 'ironclad'’, 29 April 2014, retrieved 21 May 2015,

[14] US support for the Philippines is increasingly evident with the signing of the Improved Defense Treaty, the ten-year agreement that allows the US military greater presence in the Philippines signed on 28 April 2014 between the Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, and US Ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg , a few hours before Obama's arrival in the Philippines.

[15]  R Emmers, op.cit, p. 43