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The South China Sea in the Trump Era

Mar 10 , 2017
  • Chen Xiangmiao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China National Institute for South China Sea Studies

Donald J. Trump has been in office for a month. Where this seemingly unconventional president will take the US’s South China Sea policy is a matter of heated debate among international observers. On Jan 24, at the first press conference of the new administration, a White House spokesman stated that the US intends to protect its interests there. Then, in February, a US Navy carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson arrived in the South China Sea, signalling a tough stance from Trump. But, as many observers have pointed out, people on Trump’s team seem to lack understanding of the issue. Their policy lacks maturity, so its future direction is unknown.

From the recent remarks of administration officials, their policy appears to be heading in the same direction as Obama’s, but will continue to intensify the geopolitical game with China, especially by appearing alarmed at China’s island-building in the area. In January, Rex Tillerson, whom Trump nominated for Secretary of State, stated that the US should send a clear signal that the island-building must stop and China’s access to those islands is not allowed. This already goes far beyond the Obama administration’s South China Sea policy. The first dispatch of an aircraft carrier strike group to the area in February shortly after Trump took office also seems to signal a strategic shift eastward and toward a greater US military presence in the region.

At present, however, despite the tough language of some officials and the dispatch of the US Navy strike group, it seems that Trump is testing China’s limits and reactions, and that the new administration’s policy on this issue is undecided.

An analysis of the signals released by Trump’s team regarding global issues begs the question: Is the South China Sea really a priority of the new government’s foreign policy?

Compared to the sticky areas of Taiwan, the RMB exchange rate and the so-called Islamic State, the South China Sea seems a relatively minor issue. On the Taiwan issue in particular, Trump has gone further than Obama whereas Trump has remained relatively restrained on the “freedom of navigation” issue.

Trump’s business-oriented team will undoubtedly adopt an Asia-Pacific strategy and China policy guided by pragmatism and US interests above all else. It is precisely because of this that the focus of the US’s Asia-Pacific strategy will shift toward ensuring its own economic prosperity and opening up the international economic system, while the Trump administration’s South China Sea policy will reflect a careful weighing of interests in the region.

Since 2009, US intervention in the South China Sea has netted more losses than gains. This is particularly true of its increased military presence in Southeast Asia, as its aggressive and high-handed interference has drawn a strategic response from China. The US is actually caught in a spiralling whirlpool of its own making, which has undoubtedly increased the diplomatic, political and military costs for the US. Other than giving China a hard time, the Obama administration gained nothing over the sea issue.

One can presume that, with its focus firmly on real interests, the Trump administration will not prioritize the issue.

However, this does not mean that the South China Sea will no longer be important to the US. Nor is the US likely to beat a retreat. In fact, there has not been, and will not be, any change to the fundamental US interest there. Making sure it has overwhelming military superiority and sufficient free space to carry out military activities, maintaining stable alliances and relationships with partner countries, and having the power to formulate and control maritime rules will remain the most important parts of its Asia-Pacific strategy.

Although the Trump administration will not give excessive attention to its geopolitical competition with China in the sea, the issue will undoubtedly become a tool that the US can use to contain China. Within the “America First” framework, the Trump administration may use the issue as a bargaining chip in negotiations with China on issues such as the RMB exchange rate and trade protectionism, hence the possibility of a flexible and changing US sea policy.

Nevertheless, within this policy framework, the US will not withdraw its military from the Philippines, Singapore and other countries near the South China Sea, nor will it cancel its joint military activities with the Philippines, Australia and others, probably opting instead to put on selective shows of force. If the Trump administration is displeased with China over cyber security or the RMB exchange rate, the US will likely use its activities in the sea to express its displeasure and force China to retreat.

The game-playing between China and the US over this issue is a destabilizing development, which will be shaped by their contests in other fields as well as their deep-rooted structural contradictions. In spite of their diplomatic efforts and existing mechanisms for information exchange and confidence building, the strategic distrust between the two sides is not easily eradicated.

It can be predicted, therefore, that the South China Sea will remain geopolitically important, the US will continue to pursue its interests in the area, and it will continue to cooperate with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific.

For the time being, there is a lack of understanding between the Trump administration and the Chinese government about each other’s sea policy. The Trump team has still not formally and systematically laid out the new government’s policy, and there are still doubts about how much the Trump administration understands China’s stance on this issue.

The South China Sea issue is a stumbling block in China-US relations and a challenge that both governments must address over at least the next four years. On Feb 28, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi was formally invited to the US, a positive signal that may suggest more relaxed relations between the two countries. It is hoped that China and the US used this consultation to jointly promote a meeting between the two heads of state, so that the two sides can strengthen dialogue on the basis of respect for each other’s concerns and the principle of mutual benefit through cooperation. It is also hoped that the Trump administration will remain rational and restrained so as to create the conditions to ease tensions and properly handle the sea issue.

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