Since last year’s surprising election of Donald Trump, Beijing has looked to up the stakes and increase its leverage in the disputed South China Sea. This past December, China seized a U.S. Navy unmanned underwater vehicle near the Philippines. The seizure was made outside of Beijing’s expansive and ambiguous “nine-dash line.” While the drone was eventually returned to Washington, the incident reveals a new level of mistrust and strategic rivalry between China and the United States. It has also further colored the water amid growing uncertainty on the future trajectory of Sino-U.S. relations under the coming Trump administration.
Beijing is looking to adapt on the fly to the new team in Washington, which has a frenetic, and uncertain, foreign policy direction toward China and the region. On one hand, Beijing was cautiously cheering the defeat of Hillary Clinton — as it worried the former presidential favorite would enact a tougher line toward bilateral relations. Beijing also watched gleefully as Trump repeatedly castigated allies in the region — especially archrival Japan — for not paying their fair share of the burden for U.S. security guarantees. Trump’s denouncement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was icing on the cake as Obama’s rebalance policy — largely viewed in a containment lens in Beijing — suffered a crushing body blow.
China’s honeymoon with Trump was short-lived however, and while many questions remain it is clear that he intends to press hard against Beijing on the trade front. Trump called on China on numerous occasions during his campaign — and following his election — as engaging in unfair trade practices and manipulating its currency. He has now appointed a hawkish envoy — Peter Navarro — for his top trade post to lead the new White House National Trade Council. If this was not enough, Trump has also talked tough on “core interests” to China such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Beijing is and should be concerned — but they are also looking to take advantage. The prime arena for this in the coming months will be the South China Sea, due to China’s increasing strategic leverage. Other pressure points that China can touch on — such as Taiwan and the East China Sea dispute with Japan — are more complex and the escalation ladder could lead to significant consequences for Beijing if it crosses a line. Part of this is due to U.S. treaty and quasi-treaty commitments to Tokyo and Taipei, respectfully. But China is also wary of the advanced military (especially naval) capabilities of both Japan and Taiwan, and thus is likely to limit its provocations to so-called “gray-zone probing.”
The situation in the South China Sea is different and Beijing rightly sees that it has the strategic advantage, with other claimants in the region (such as the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia) possessing little capacity to deter or mitigate Chinese actions. Even the most powerful competitor in the region — Vietnam — lacks the maritime capabilities, both coast guard and naval, to effectively alter Beijing’s calculus.
During the Obama administration’s tenure, Beijing has exploited what it viewed as the weak leg of U.S. security presence in the region and successfully challenged Washington’s commitment to its only treaty ally embroiled in the dispute — the Philippines. While there were some significant accomplishments in the Obama administration’s rebalance strategy — such as rotational basing deals in Australia, the Philippines and Singapore — it lacked strategic clarity and commitment in Southeast Asia and the White House was not prepared to make an explicit commitment — or “red line” — on issues such as China’s naval siege and bullying around the Scarborough Shoal.
China recognized that there was a rationale behind Obama’s soft-walk on the South China Sea. Unlike Northeast Asia, where the bulk of its military force in the region is located, the U.S. simply does not have the ability to substantively monitor and provide a credible deterrent in the South China Sea. This fact, coupled with institutional divisions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and weak adherence to international law (i.e., China’s blatant disregard for the Hague arbitration ruling), has provided fertile ground for China to engage in extensive land reclamation activities over the past few years.
But perhaps more concerning than the creation of the artificial islands in the South China Sea is the military hardware that China has been installing on its man-made outposts. Earlier this month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) revealed that — contrary to China’s promise to not militarize its created reefs — Beijing has added significant weaponry on a number of the reclaimed features. Satellite photos from AMTI reveal that the militarization in the Spratly chain almost definitely involves China’s imposition of heavy anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems.
Beijing essentially is looking to further change the facts on the ground before the Trump administration takes office and is using its “build, secure, hold” strategy to gain effective control of large swaths of airspace in the South China Sea. This essentially is a precursor to China eventually imposing an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea — similar to its unilateral imposition of an ADIZ in the East China Sea in 2013.
The coming Trump administration must be eyes wide open on China’s approach in the South China Sea and realize that time is running out to influence Beijing’s tactics. Similarly, Trump will need to think carefully about his seeming preference for transactional or bilateral relationships with allies as it will take a collaborative and focused effort, involving not just the U.S. but Japan, India, Australia and ASEAN, to bring stability and order to the disputed seas.
J. Berkshire Miller is an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, based in Tokyo. He is also a senior fellow for the New York-based EastWest Institute.