A President Hillary Clinton Would Get Tougher On Beijing Over Disputed South China Sea

“Her record suggests a more assertive U.S. response.”

By Ralph Jennings

The United States has no territorial claim to the South China Sea. But it is shaping up as one of the most celebrated or reviled players – depending who you talk to — in a half century-old dispute over rights to the 3.5 million-square-kilometer ocean. Washington agreed to resume sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam last month after a ban of some 30 years and since 2014 it has helped the Philippines shore up its military preparedness. Both Southeast Asian countries are chafing with China over access to the sea. America is naturally reviled by China, a rival world superpower that is building up military positions and staking economic claims at sea despite protests from six other governments that say the waters are at least partly theirs.

Chinese officials have feared for the past five years President Barack Obama wants to contain China’s expansion, making the United States the world’s dominant country, and they’re probably right. They’ll be even more right if his Democratic Party’s prospective nominee Hillary Clinton gets elected U.S. president later this year and takes office in January. Clinton, secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, would at least extend Obama’s policies on the South China Sea and probably take a tougher stance, say analysts who follow U.S. Asia policy.

“A president Clinton would be Obama ‘plus’ in the South China Sea, even tougher,” says Sean King, senior vice president with consulting firm Park Strategies in New York. “Beijing dreads the thought of her in the White House.”

A Clinton-run United States would not start a real fight over the ocean’s oil, gas, fish or some 500 tiny islets. It would rather keep pushing for Obama’s goals of preserving freedom of navigation in the South China Sea for American vessels and for upholding military cooperation with Southeast Asian governments that worry most about China’s maritime expansion. A new Clinton administration might go further by resisting China via international bodies or agreements to which both belong or aspire to join. It might also deepen relations with Beijing’s two most outspoken South China Sea rivals Vietnam and the Philippines.

“Her record suggests a more assertive U.S. response,”  says Ben Reilly, dean of the public policy and international affairs school at Murdoch University in Australia. “This will not see the U.S. going to war over rocks and atolls, but rather a ratcheting-up of the costs to China in terms of its participation in international institutions and global affairs generally.”

Hillary Clinton, while U.S. Secretary of State, talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang  Jiechi on September 5, 2012

Regarding that record, Clinton was secretary of state when Obama announced his pivot or rebalancing of foreign policy to Asia, including a military component. She spoke out for international law as a basis for maritime claims during a 2010 foreign ministers meeting in Hanoi, a gentle jab at China that uses historical navigation records to ground its claim to 95% of the ocean.

“The Chinese have concerns about (Clinton’s) attitude toward them,” says Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia program at The Stimson Center, a U.S. think tank. “That said, they know she is highly experienced and will be much more predictable than Donald Trump. In that sense, they would be relieved to see her win.”


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