International relations, National security | The World, Asia, East Asia

20 October 2020

No matter who wins the November presidential election in the United States, major policy change in the South China Sea is unlikely, Aristyo Rizka Darmawan writes.

As the world’s major power goes to the polls to elect a new leader, few would deny that the result of its 2020 election will be very significant for world geopolitics. One of the most important issues that the next administration will have to consider is America’s future policy towards Asia and specifically China.

The next president will make countless important decisions about how the United States will further engage with Asia, manage its tensions with China, and contribute to the ongoing dispute in the South China Sea.

At least since the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, the United States has ostensibly made Asia its major foreign policy concern. With this evolving into President Trump’s emphasis on Indo-Pacific strategy, it seems that American foreign policy has indeed started to shift from intervention in the Middle East to focusing on a more prosperous relationship with Asia.

In principle, this makes sense. Asia’s economy is becoming more significant for the world every year, and many scholars have declared the 21st century the Asian century. For the United States, focusing foreign policy more heavily on the Asian region is sure to be beneficial for the both strategic and economic terms.

Still, this is easier said than done. For the last several years, the world has watched a tense relationship develop between the United States and China.

More on this: President Trump and America’s place in the world

With the President’s trade war with China and ongoing tension in the South China Sea, many analysts predict that there will be a ‘new cold war’ between the United States and China.

One of the main conflicts in the Asian region remains the South China Sea dispute. Even though the United States is not a party to the dispute, it has been heavily involved, with the purported goal of securing freedom of navigation.

For the last several years under the Trump administration, the United States has increased its presence in the South China Sea, and the Department of State recently issued a strong statement backing Southeast Asian claimant states in the dispute.

So, after the election, will the United States keep its strong policy in the South China Sea or will it reduce its presence in the disputed area?

When observing both Democratic candidate Joe Biden and President Trump’s rhetoric during the presidential campaign and considering the country’s interest in the region, it seems American presence in the South China Sea is unlikely to be dialled back any time soon.

More on this: The South China Sea then and now

Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are likely to still consider Asia and China their top foreign policy priority.

During their presidential campaigns, both Trump and Biden have accused each other of a weak position on China, indicating its future importance, no matter the administration.

In parallel to President Trump’s trade war, Joe Biden has called Chinese President Xi Jinping a thug and threatened to put economic sanctions to China, and even though his recent essay for Foreign Affairs does not specifically mention the South China Sea dispute, he still emphasises that the United States should have a tougher position in China.

For Trump’s part, American policy in the South China Sea has been consistent throughout his presidency, with the United States still trying to increase its military presence in the disputed area.

Along with the policies of the two presidential candidates, one only needs to look to broader geopolitics to see why the policy will remain unchanged. Even though the United States is not a claimant in the dispute, it has a strong interest in assuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

This is because the South China Sea is one of the world’s most important trade routes. Moreover, a sustained interest in the dispute can gain the United States more influence and legitimacy in Southeast Asia for protecting its allies in the region.

Whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump wins the election, major policy change in the South China Sea doesn’t seem likely. Indeed, in the years after the election, the world shouldn’t just expect the same tensions to continue between the world’s standing superpower and a rapidly rising China, but brace itself for further escalation.

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