The East Sea and the new US President’s choice
Many Americans went to the polls early to elect a new President and the results of the 2020 US presidential election will have great implications for the world geopolitical situation.
One of the most important issues that the next administration will have to consider is the US’ future policy toward Asia, particularly China. The new US President will have to make important decisions on how the US will become more involved in Asia, manage tensions with China, and deal with ongoing disputes in the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea).
Since the Obama administration implemented its "Pivot to Asia" policy, the US has clearly shown its view of Asia as a key concern in its foreign policy. With President Donald Trump's emphasis on the Indo-Pacific strategy, it seems that the US foreign policy has really begun to shift from intervention in the Middle East to focusing on a more prosperous relationship with Asia.
This is understandable. The Asian economy is becoming more and more important to the world. Therefore, many scholars have assumed that the 21st century is the century of Asia. For the US, focusing its foreign policy more on Asia will surely bring about benefits, both strategically and economically.
The US will continue to increase the frequency of drills with its allies and partners, its presence and patrol campaigns to ensure freedom of navigation.
Along with the trade war between the US and China and the ongoing tension in the East Sea, many analysts have predicted a "new cold war" between the US and China. One of the main conflicts in Asia remains the East Sea dispute.
Although the US is not a claimant in the East Sea dispute, Washington has a strong interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in this water. The reason is that the East Sea is one of the most important sea routes in the world. Furthermore, the dispute in the East Sea could give the US more influence and legitimacy in Southeast Asia to protect its allies in the region.
Priority for foreign affairs
The US administration under President Trump has increased its presence in the East Sea and the US Secretary of State in July issued a strong statement supporting Southeast Asian states that are claimants in the East Sea dispute. The question is, will the US continue to maintain a strong policy in the East Sea after the election or reduce its presence there?
If we pay attention to the statements of both Democratic candidate Joe Biden and President Donald Trump during their presidential election campaigns, while looking at American interests in this region, it seems the presence of the US in the East Sea is unlikely to reduce in the near future.
Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are likely to still see Asia in general and China in particular as their top foreign policy priority.
During their presidential election campaign, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden accused each other of weak stances against China. This shows the future importance of China for Washington, regardless of who becomes the next US president.
If Biden takes office
Parallel to President Trump's trade war with China, Biden threatened to impose economic sanctions on China. Although the Democratic candidate's recent article on Foreign Affairs magazine did not specifically mention the East Sea dispute, he insisted that the US should take a tougher stance towards China.
If Biden takes office in January 2021, his administration will likely be more predictable and consistent than his predecessor. However, the US under Biden will not be able to return to Obama's foreign policy, even though the Biden administration may focus more on strengthening ties with international allies and organizations, which already fell out with the US under President Trump’s administration.
A tougher strategy towards China will not change much under Biden. The atmosphere of Sino-US relations may improve slightly and the tactics Washington uses to pursue this competition may change as well.
If Biden wins the election, this will greatly affect the security environment of Southeast Asia. Whichever candidate wins, Southeast Asian countries will be at the heart of the growing Sino-American competition, especially on the East Sea issue.
The East Sea policy under Biden will not change. The US will continue to increase the frequency of exercises with its allies and partners, its presence and patrol campaigns to ensure freedom of navigation (FONOP). The US will also continue to support capacity building for Southeast Asian claimants in the East Sea.
If President Trump is re-elected
If Trump is reelected, he will likely maintain many of the current policies, both at home and abroad. In his time, US policy in the East Sea is consistent with the US still seeking to increase its military presence in this disputed area.
Since 2017, the US government has moved from criticizing assertive Chinese policies in the East Sea to asserting Beijing's claims and activities in this water to be illegal.
The US military has significantly increased the frequency of its operations in the East Sea. From May 2017 to August 2020, the US Navy conducted 24 FONOP operations in this water, 6 times more than during the Obama administration.
The Trump administration's tougher policy on the East Sea issue, especially the US support of the sovereignty of Southeast Asian countries in their exclusive economic zones, is generally welcomed by these countries. However, there are still concerns that a US-China military confrontation could push the region into an undesirable crisis.
Thus, whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump wins the election, a major change in US policy in the East Sea seems unlikely. Indeed, in the years following the ongoing US election, the world will not only have to see similar tensions continue between the US - the world superpower - and a rapidly rising China, but still have to struggle against the escalating actions.
Hoang Viet (Lecturer of HCMC University of Law, member of the Marine and Island Law Research Committee, Vietnam Bar Federation)
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