Throughout his first year in office, trade war threats and the Korean Peninsula crisis mostly defined the United States President Donald Trump’s Asia policy. The upshot was that other flashpoints, particularly the South China Sea, largely dropped off the radar.
Beijing seemingly sought a grand bargain with Washington, whereby in exchange for cooperation on North Korea it demanded American disengagement from adjacent waters. What is clear, however, is that China managed to press its claim across adjacent waters with strategic impunity.
Throughout Trump’s tenure, Beijing has reclaimed an additional 290,000 square meters across disputed land features in the South China Sea, while deploying increasingly sophisticated military assets to its artificially-built islands. In many ways, it was a literally “constructive” year for China. Gradually, a growing number of countries, specifically in Southeast Asia, contemplated the prospect of American strategic abandonment. Smaller powers such as the Philippines embraced what one can describe as strategic fatalism -- gradually opting for graceful accommodation on China’s terms.
In recent weeks, however, Washington has stepped up its efforts to check Chinese maritime ambitions in the South China Sea. The Pentagon has stepped up its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOps) in the South China Sea, while deploying Defense Secretary James Mattis to key Southeast Asian partners. With China emerging as America’s top national security concern, there are growing signs that the Trump administration’s South China Sea policy is finally taking shape.
Drawing the Line
In the newly-released National Defense Strategy (NDS), the American defense establishment openly described Beijing as a “strategic competitor,” which is bent on “using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea.” The document openly accuses Beijing of “seek[ing] Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”
The NDS is broadly consistent with and reflects the basic China-skeptic strategic impulse reflected in the earlier National Security Strategy (NSS) document released by the Trump administration, where China’s maritime ambitions are placed under the spotlight. The NSS describes China’s “efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea” as “endanger[ing] the free flow of trade, threaten[ing] the sovereignty of other nations,” which will, in turn, “undermine regional stability.” It accuses Beijing of “mounting a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there.”
According to the Trump administration’s NSS, “Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.” Thus partners and allies “throughout the region are calling for sustained U.S. leadership in a collective response that upholds a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence.”
The broader implication of the two major documents is that great power rivalry is now the defining theme of American foreign policy. This new dynamic is now poignantly reflected in the South China Sea, where the parameters of Sino-American competition are well articulated.
In its second year in office, the Trump administration is taking the fight to China, rallying regional allies against the most powerful revisionist force in Asia. This is the context within which America’s latest FONOP operation in the Scarborough Shoal as well as Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit to Southeast Asia should be understood.
America Steps In
The United States Navy (USN) kicked off the New Year by sending a strong signal to China. It deployed (on January 20) the guided missile destroyer USS Hopper within the 12 nautical miles radius of the Chinese-occupied Scarborough Shoal. This was arguably the most powerful gesture by Washington, so far, to challenge China’s occupation of the strategic land feature in the South China Sea.
The contested shoal is claimed by and falls within the 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, an American treaty ally. There are growing worries that China will soon press ahead with reclaiming the contested land feature and, subsequently, deploy military assets, which will place the northern Philippine island of Luzon within China’s crosshairs.
The shoal is the last missing piece in Beijing’s planned “strategic triangle” at the heart of the South China Sea, connecting its sprawling network of military bases stretching from the Paracels in the north to the Spratlys in the South. The triangle is a sine qua non for effective enforcement of a Chinese exclusion zone, or, more formally, an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in one of the world’s most important sea lines of communications.
Moreover, the shoal lies just above 100 nautical miles from Subic and Clark bases, which have been crucial to America’s projection of naval power in the region for the past century. For both the Pentagon and the Philippine defense establishment, Chinese prospective reclamation and militarization of the Scarborough Shoal is a virtual redline.
Days after the latest FONOP, the American defense secretary visited Indonesia and Vietnam, two strategic partners, which have been resisting China’s expansionist maneuvers in the South China Sea.
This was a calculated effort to rally major regional states in order to rein in Beijing’s maritime ambitions.
In Indonesia, General Mattis described the Southeast Asian country as a “maritime fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific,” while defending Jakarta’s decision to rename Beijing-claimed maritime areas near the Natuna islands as the “North Natuna Sea.” Jakarta has openly rejected Beijing’s claims of historic rights in the northern waters of Indonesia, where China’s nine-dashed-line overlaps with waters off the coast of the energy-rich Natuna islands. During his visit, Mattis pushed for deeper maritime security cooperation between the two sides, while underlining America’s domain awareness assistance to its regional partners.
The American defense secretary made a similar pitch in Vietnam, which has welcomed the superpower as an indispensable counterbalance to China. Mattis indicated that for the first time in recent memory, an American aircraft carrier is set to visit Vietnam, underscoring blossoming bilateral strategic relations amid rising tensions in the South China Sea. This may very well be the beginning of Trump’s own pivot to Asia, with even greater focus on checking Chinese revanchist posturing in adjacent waters.