The outlines of the Trump administration's policy toward China and the South China Sea are emerging from a fog of confusing and contradictory statements and actions. The administration started off with a relatively belligerent posture toward China in general and its actions in the South China Sea in particular. But the administration seems to have moderated its stance. Indeed, the emerging policy is beginning to look somewhat familiar. It is essentially a continuation of the Obama administration's policy — although it appears to have a heavier emphasis on a military component.

Rightly or wrongly, U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) vis-a-vis China's claims have become an indicator of U.S. resolve — at least in the view of some opinion leaders in the region. There were six legally confused and confusing FONOPs in the South China Sea against China's claims during the Obama administration. But some eight months have passed since the last one on Oct. 16.

The Trump administration supposedly did not approve three U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) requests to carry out new FONOPs against China's claims in the South China Sea. The U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. Scott Swift, explained that "we just present the opportunities. ... They are either taken advantage of or they're not."