Asia Pacific

Chinese academics say Trump will pursue 'regional hegemony' in the South China Sea

Reuters, Bloomberg

A Donald Trump presidency does not mean the United States will withdraw from the South China Sea, but rather will continue pursuing “regional hegemony,” Chinese academics who drafted a report for an influential government think tank said on Friday.

Ensuring “absolute control” over the South China Sea is the crux of U.S. military strategy in the Asia-Pacific, according to what the authors said was China’s first public report on the U.S. military presence in the region, released on Friday in Beijing.

“There will be no overturning change to U.S. policy in the South China Sea,” said Wu Shicun, head of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, the influential Hainan-based think tank that wrote the report.

Trump rarely mentioned the South China Sea on the campaign trail. He concentrated on the economic relationship with Beijing, threatening to label China a currency manipulator and impose import tariffs on Chinese imports.

U.S. commitments to its allies will not change, nor will its stance on protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, said Wu. As such, tensions between China and the United States in the South China Sea likely will grow in lockstep with China’s military growth, he added.

“It’s very possible for President-elect Donald Trump to deploy more vessels in the South China Sea,” Wu said, adding that there is only a “very small chance” of military conflict in the region.

According to the report by China’s only state-backed institution dedicated to research on the waters, American military vessels and aircraft carried out more than 700 patrols in the South China Sea region during 2015, making China the No. 1 surveillance target of the U.S.

The patrols pose a threat to China’s sovereignty and security interests, said the report, which warned that continued targeted operations by U.S. patrols would lead to militarization of the waters.

“China could possibly set up an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea if the U.S. continues to intensify patrols and low-altitude spying in the region,” Wu told reporters.

China claims most of the energy-rich waters, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

Recent U.S. efforts to counter what it sees as China limiting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea have drawn Beijing’s ire and stoked fears of military conflict. A patrol by U.S. warships in October was dubbed “illegal” and “provocative” by the Chinese Defense Ministry.

“From the U.S. perspective, China’s large-scale construction activities in the South China Sea confirmed U.S. suspicion that China intended to implement an anti-access/area-denial strategy,” the report said.

There would be “more continuity than change” in Trump’s military policy in the Asia-Pacific, said Zhu Feng, director of the South China Sea Center at Nanjing University, at the report’s launch.

Trump may not use the term “rebalancing” to the region, but he would likely retain most of policies, he added.

Both academics agreed that there is a high possibility of increased U.S. military spending in the Asia-Pacific under Trump.

A Trump administration would “not be an exception” to other Republican-led governments that increase military spending when they take office, said Zhu Feng.

The build-up of military might in the region has led to worries of a rising risk of accidental collisions that could spark conflict.

Zhu said that the decision to release a public report now is not China “preparing for war” but rather to avoid an “arms race” between China and the United States.

The document, titled “Report on the Military of the United States of America in the Asia-Pacific Region,” also said that Japan “provides strong support to the U.S. in the South China Sea.” Japan has clashed with China over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Maritime drills carried out by the U.S., Japan and Australia were “obviously targeted at China,” the report said. The three countries carried out their first drills in July 2015 at various locations around Australia and another in April in the Java Sea.

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