The Local and the Global: The South China Sea in US‑China‑ASEAN Relations

Alice Ba
Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware

Volume 15 (2021): 31-55 | Download PDF


The South China Sea has proved a perennial challenge to those in Southeast Asia. For both claimants and non-claimants alike, the South China Sea has proved a political and geopolitical challenge, affecting not just their great power relations but also their relations with one another. Most discussions rightly focus on China as a highly active claimant, a power with increasingly comprehensive influence and that has had divisive effects on ASEAN as an institution. Less discussed, however, is the changing significance of the South China Sea for US-ASEAN relations. While ASEAN states share a US concern about unchecked Chinese power, their interests are also not the same. This paper thus examines the significance of the South China Sea for US-Southeast Asia relations, with a particular interest in ASEAN as an institution. It offers a discussion of how differences in size and position make US interests fundamentally different from those of regional states, including those of the most vigorous claimants, resulting in different policy preferences.


United States, ASEAN, South China Sea, global powers