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Safeguarding the South China Sea – A Vital Artery for Global Trade and US Prosperity

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Lisa Smith Al Makahleh

The recent clashes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea serve as a stark reminder of the high stakes involved in this strategic waterway. As the world’s most heavily trafficked sea lane, the South China Sea is not just a regional issue, but one that has far-reaching consequences for the global economy and the United States’ economic and security interests.
China’s relentless pursuit to dominate the South China Sea poses a grave threat. If Beijing succeeds in asserting control over this vital maritime route, the implications would be dire. It could potentially choke off trade and shipments to Japan, control access to technologies crucial to US economic activities (especially microchips), and project power deep into the Pacific.
The economic significance of the South China Sea cannot be overstated. Accounting for 64% of total global goods discharged in 2022, this waterway serves as a vital artery for international trade. Any disruption to the free passage of ships through these waters would have far-reaching consequences for the global economy, affecting not only the countries directly involved in the dispute but also the broader international community.
For the United States, the stakes are particularly high. South China Sea trade accounts for 5.72% of all trade in goods for the US. Safeguarding freedom of navigation in this region is essential to protecting American prosperity and maintaining its leadership role in the global economy. Failure to do so would lead to higher shipping costs, supply chain disruptions, and increased market volatility – all of which would undermine the US economic standing.
While neighboring countries adhere to their internationally recognized Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) for their maritime claims, China asserts sovereignty over a broad swathe of ocean in the South China Sea encompassed by the “nine-dash line.” In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s claims, stating that it cannot claim rights to resources in the South China Sea that lie within the EEZs of other coastal states. However, China has rejected this ruling and threatened the use of military force to assert its claims.
The United States must take decisive action to prevent China from seizing control of the South China Sea. This requires strengthening its own deterrent capabilities while working closely with allies and partners in the region who share a common interest in maintaining a free and open South China Sea. Countries like Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and India must be empowered to push back against China’s expansionist ambitions.
The Chinese Communist Party’s quest for regional hegemony at the expense of its neighbors is unacceptable. The US military’s deterrent effect on the Chinese attempt to establish dominance in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific more broadly serves the national security interests of both the United States and the overwhelming majority of countries in the region.
Safeguarding the South China Sea is not just a regional imperative – it is a global economic and security imperative. The United States must lead the charge in preserving the freedom of navigation and the rules-based international order that has underpinned global prosperity for decades. Failure to do so would have dire consequences for the US and the world.