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.”

It then began to appear that Trump, in his “let’s make a deal” approach to foreign policy, had backed off criticism and actions against China in general and in the South China Sea in particular in return for China’s assistance in stopping North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development programs.

This was the background to more recent U.S. statements and actions. In his address to the Shangri-La Dialogue in early June, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis tried to balance between praising China for its help with North Korea and criticizing its “indisputable militarization of artificial islands” and “excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law.” But he upped the ante by adding that the U.S. “cannot and will not accept unilateral coercive changes to the status quo.” He also outlined his policy as a mix of supporting and as necessary, demonstrating, “the rules based international order”; encouraging a more interconnected region regarding security matters; enhancing U.S. military capabilities there; and reinforcing U.S. defense relations with allies and willing partners, including training and weapons sales. This is basically similar to former U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s stated approach to the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has recently come out even stronger, telling Congress on June 14 that he has warned Chinese counterparts that their current foreign policy will “bring us into conflict.” He said that U.S.-China relations had reached “an inflection point” and could lead to war if not properly managed.

On June 21, after meeting in Washington with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and PLA Chief of Joint Staff Fang Fenghui as part of the new U.S.-China Diplomatic Security Dialogue, he said that he and Mattis “made clear” to their Chinese counterparts that the U.S. position remains the same. “We oppose changes to the status quo of the past through the militarization of outposts in the South China Sea and excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law, and we uphold freedom of navigation and overflight.” In seeming possible contradiction, Mattis added, “I’m committed to improving the U.S.-China defense relationship so that it remains a stabilizing element in our overall relationship.”

So this is — for what it is worth — the Trump administration’s policy toward the South China Sea. However, Mattis, Tillerson and Trump himself seem to be somewhat preoccupied with other international and domestic matters. PACOM commander Adm. Harry Harris has emerged as the “tip of the spear” for Washington’s strategic approach to China.

Indeed, according to security analyst Carl Thayer, Harris is “the very glue holding the traditional U.S. line together across Asia.” He is — at the very least — in charge of implementing policy. Some observers say the portion of Mattis’ Shangri-La speech criticizing China’s actions in the South China Sea reflected Harris’ view that the U.S. needs to have a more robust posture toward China there.

In Harris’ own words, “We will continue to cooperate where we can but have to be ready to confront if we must. So I simply continue to focus on building critical relationships while ensuring that we have credible combat power to back up our security commitments and to help American diplomacy operate from a position of strength.”

This more aggressive tactical approach may have been evidenced by recent U.S. actions in the region. In May, two aircraft carrier strike groups were deployed to the western Pacific, one of which undertook the first-ever drills in the South China Sea with Japan’s largest warship, the Izumo helicopter carrier. The first FONOP under the Trump administration occurred in late May when the USS Dewey made a provocative noninnocent passage within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Mischief Reef, indirectly challenging China’s claim to sovereignty over the low tide feature. Mattis — who reportedly had asked PACOM for a strategy for the South China Sea — said the Dewey FONOP was part of U.S. strategy.

This FONOP was promptly followed by an in-your-face training exercise over the South China Sea with two B-1B Lancer heavy strategic bombers liaising with the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Sterett.

However, on the “carrot” end of the equation the Sterett made a scheduled port visit to Zhanjiang, a major node for China’s South Sea surface naval fleet. Leading the visit was the man who may replace Harris as PACOM next year — the commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Swift. In keeping with Harris’ new preference for “speaking softly but carrying (showing) a big stick,” Swift downplayed FONOPs themselves in favor of America’s demonstration of strength by its “consistence presence” in the region.

This low-key statement was in keeping with a recent decision not to announce or highlight FONOPs in the South China Sea. Swift confirmed that the quieter approach equated to a softer U.S. posture in the region. Also announced in May was that China had been invited to participate in the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise, known as RIMPAC — the world’s largest international naval exercise and hosted by the U.S. Navy in Hawaii.

The conclusion is that the Trump administration’s policy regarding the South China Sea is a continuation of the Obama administration’s policy but with more emphasis on the military dimension. However, if China is unwilling or unable to help sufficiently with North Korea, or with other “trade-offs” proposed by Trump, the military component of U.S. foreign policy may become the main or even sole approach.

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

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