The security situation in the South China Sea is deteriorating in a way unseen since the mid-1990s. And given the growth in China’s military power and global influence since then, it is a much bigger problem for the United States. China’s challenge in the South China Sea—its expansive extralegal claims to maritime territory—demands a strong, clear, interest-based response. American interests in the conflict are, in order of priority, as follows:
Freedom of the Seas
This is a bedrock, non-negotiable interest of the United States. The U.S. is the world’s preeminent seafaring nation. When it comes to the South China Sea—through which half of global shipping and most of Northeast Asia’s energy supplies transit—its position is consistent: All nations enjoy navigational rights and freedoms there that are qualitatively and quantitatively the same as those applicable on the high seas.
Treaty Ally in the Philippines
The U.S. has wisely refrained from taking a position on the details of the six-sided South China Sea sovereignty dispute. But that does not mean it is neutral. It has legal security obligations toward one of the claimants. The 1951 U.S-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty obliges the U.S. to “act to meet the common dangers” embodied in an attack on the territory of the Philippines or “its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”
What constitutes Philippine territory in the context of the treaty is not entirely clear. Seven of the islands in dispute constitute the Filipino municipality of Palawan Province that is home to hundreds of civilians. It also bears noting that at least two of the recent incidents—at Reed Bank and Amy Douglas Bank—have occurred closer to the Philippine islands proper and within its main Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Regarding the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) specifically, the treaty is unambiguous. In fact, during consideration of the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), then-Ambassador Thomas Hubbard formally represented to the Philippines that the treaty was applicable to any attack on the AFP, referencing assurances made by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1977.
Peace and security in sea-lanes
The U.S. and Vietnam have no security treaty, but they do have shared interests in safeguarding peace and security in the Western Pacific and in balancing growing China’s regional clout. It is in their mutual interest to internationalise the South China Sea dispute because none of the parties to the conflict, including Vietnam, is strong enough to deal with China bilaterally.
ASEAN’s change of heart
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