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Trump’s troubling South China Sea policy

by Mark J. Valencia

Analysts and government officials with interest in the South China Sea imbroglio have been befuddled by the mixed signals being sent by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration regarding China’s claims and actions there. Apparently this prevarication is an example of Trump’s “transactional” approach to foreign policy. But this is not just a matter of style. Trump’s backpedaling and bargaining has some prime implications for the security paradigm in the region — and perhaps beyond.

Some commentators welcomed the Trump administration’s early statements indicating it would be “tough” on China. His rhetoric during the presidential campaign and early statements from his Cabinet nominees indicated that Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea would become more frequent during his administration.

Indeed, Trump’s nominees for secretaries of state (Rex Tillerson) and for defense (James Mattis) both talked tough about China at their confirmation hearings. They engendered hope for those wanting the United States to “stand up to China” in the South China Sea and stimulated a flurry of opinion pieces and statements urging a more muscular U.S. policy toward China there. During his February visit to Asia, Mattis assured his Japanese counterparts that the U.S. would be more active in asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Momentum was building for a confrontation with China.

But both friend and foe were misled. As late as May 2, Trump’s nominee for ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, said at his confirmation hearings that “China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce neighbors or limit freedom of navigation or overflight.” Clearly he and others thought that was the Trumpian line to be taken — and did so.

But Trump, Tillerson and Mattis are now singing a different tune. Despite previously questioning the “One China” policy, Trump told President Xi Jinping that he will honor and observe it. Moreover Tillerson “clarified” his earlier remarks that China should be denied access to features it occupies, indicating that he is not pushing for a blockade of China. Mattis also walked back his belligerent stance saying that the U.S. would focus on diplomacy regarding the South China Sea disputes and that “at this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all.”

This policy shift — or pause — included turning down three CINCPAC (Commander in Chief Pacific) requests to carry out new FONOPs against China in the South China Sea. These requests were made because CINCPAC thought that was what the Trump administration wanted. In an attempt to mitigate the impact of this revelation, the commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet, Adm. Scott Swift, maintained that “there has been no policy change” with regard to FONOPs. But he added rather weakly that “we just present the opportunities. They are either taken advantage of or they’re not.” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis explained that U.S. FONOPs will continue, but information “on these operations will be released publicly in the annual FONOPs report, and not sooner.” This all may be so, but the decision not to publicly challenge China’s “excessive” claims after doing so previously is quite a climb down. In some analysts’ eyes it detracts from the defense of international law — which the U.S. solemnly claims to uphold.

This pause has left many analysts and Asian leaders shaking — and scratching — their heads. On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to Trump urging him to restart the FONOPs. But it appears that Trump, in his “let’s make a deal” approach to foreign policy, has backed off criticism and actions against China in the South China Sea in return for China’s assistance in stopping North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development programs.

Some analysts have been rather harsh in their criticism of this approach. South China Sea expert Carl Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy declared that in dealing with China the Trump administration “can’t chew gum and walk at the same time.” He argued that the nuclear threat from North Korea and China’s assertiveness and militarization in the South China Sea must be “dealt with simultaneously” and that they are not “transactional issues.” Another analyst said he hoped “this transactional approach doesn’t give the Chinese the impression that this is a tacit acknowledgement of Beijing’s outrageous claims of sovereignty over international waters.”

More worrying than these analysts’ angst, this abrupt policy change erodes trust and confidence in America by allies and friends. Apparently the Trump administration has belatedly realized this and is trying to address that unintended consequence. In an obvious effort to bolster confidence in U.S. staying power, Tillerson told a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Washington that “it’s clear from the U.S. perspective that we want to ensure that air and maritime transit is free, and the ASEAN partners that we have can count on the U.S. to assert these rights for us and for all.”

But in the face of Trump’s policy shifts, these words ring hollow. Many are now skeptical of the Trump administration’s commitment to Asia in general — let alone constraining China in the South China Sea. After Trump’s pledge to withdraw from the U.S. proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “Now you say ‘I will walk away, that I do not believe in this deal.’ How can anyone believe in you anymore?” These are rather damning words from a supposed “friend and partner.” Increasingly, Trump’s “America First” mantra is beginning to sound to friends and allies more like “you are on your own.”

The result is that some will not count on the U.S. the way they did before. China’s success in having the ASEAN chair — the Philippines — cleanse the chairman’s statement at the ASEAN annual meeting of any derogatory words against China regarding the South China Sea has reinforced this sense of despair and frustration. This is likely to increase hedging by some ASEAN members — especially Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore — which to some extent were already sitting on the fence. Worse yet, China itself is unlikely to trust the Trump administration’s future commitments, particularly those assuring it of Washington’s good intentions. To make a lasting “deal” the parties need to be able to believe that each will fulfill its part of the bargain.

By engaging in horse trading with China rather than sticking to principle, the U.S. is on a slippery slope. China is very adept at international bargaining, having had thousands of years of experience and practice. Indeed, in the run-up to Trump and Xi’s April meeting at Mar-a-Lago, China reportedly asked Trump to dismiss CINCPAC Harry Harris — who is anathema to China’s military, particularly regarding the South China Sea. Although this has been denied by both China and the U.S., it indicates the type of trade-offs that might be involved in such bargaining.

The transactional approach to foreign policy has a downside. The U.S. is no longer using principles as its guiding light in its foreign policy — if it ever did so. It is now focusing on “what’s in it for us,” principles be damned. For those nations that believed in and depended on the U.S. to defend them and their shared principles, this is a whole new ball game, fraught with uncertainty.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, China. A version of this piece first appeared in the IPP Review.