I do not know what a Donald Trump presidency will bring for the South China Sea imbroglio. But by making and clearly stating assumptions, using logic based on the relevant available information and sketching scenarios, I can shed some light on the likely possibilities.
According to The New York Times, Trump has “no elective office experience, no coherent political agenda and no bulging binders of policy proposals.” However, we do know that Trump’s management style is that of a delegator of responsibility to loyal associates. This means that his appointees will be greatly empowered to pursue their initiatives independently — as long as they don’t cause problems for the boss. If they do, then Trump’s presidency may become more like a long-drawn out season of “The Apprentice” with firings being the consequences for failure. In that scenario. Trump’s foreign policy in general is likely to be chaotic, confused and confusing. Let’s hope this is not the case.
In any case, we will not know the likely tone and tenor of Trump’s presidency towards Asia and in particular China and the South China Sea until he fills key posts in his administration like Secretaries of State and Defense and National Security Advisor. However, that has not stopped many from speculating on what his election means for US-China relations and specifically for the very dangerous situation in the South China Sea. So, I might as well join in and offer my two cents.
There are several competing and contrasting threads in Trump’s foreign policy philosophy and among the leading contenders for the key foreign policy posts in his administration. These are “peace through strength” — even including some interventionism — and an inward-looking, even isolationist “America-First” emphasis.
“Make America Great Again” was Trump’s campaign slogan. This probably translates to a Reaganesque “peace through strength” approach to foreign policy. Implementing such a policy in Southeast Asia is likely to be accompanied by blusters, threats — both stated and implied by actions — and plain old shows of force and gunboat diplomacy in the South and East China Seas. The US military — especially the Air Force and the Navy — which have been somewhat constrained under Obama may be unleashed to undertake more and more aggressive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes and freedom of navigation operations. The US may even welcome joint air and sea patrols with Japan in the South China Sea — which would be anathema to China.
The Trump administration is unlikely to care much about its image in Asia as long as China does not interfere with trade and US business’ ability to make money.
How China reacts will set the tone for US-China relations and peace and stability in the region for the foreseeable future. China is unlikely to be intimidated and “pull in its horns” in its own “backyard.” Indeed, it may well meet US bluster, threats and provocative actions with its own. Its nationalists in the government and netizens — and particularly those in the People’s Liberation Army Navy — will press China’s leadership to respond to these “provocations.” If its leadership does not do so to the nationalists’ satisfaction, it risks losing internal influence and even control. This means that more military to military incidents are probable and that they may make past such international incidents like the EP-3, the Impeccable and the Cowpens seem mild. These events were all quite dangerous and resolved only after involvement by leadership on both sides. New incidents in the Trump era could be more severe and even lead to wider conflict.
The first six months to a year of the Trump administration will be the most dangerous in this regard. Trump will be under pressure to act to confirm his “tough guy” image. The (slim) hope is that China will give him some leeway in this transition year and during this initial period, China and the US will develop a new “strategic understanding” of what amounts to “peaceful co-existence.” Then Trumps’ predilection for “isolationism” and “America First” including opposition to alliances may counterbalance or even trump his appointees’ urge to flex their muscles in the Asian region. Trump does seem wary of expending more American blood and treasure to defend allies like Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan, especially if they provoke China while obviously expecting the US to back them up. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that several if not many ASEAN states do not want the region to become militarily and politically polarized, and to have to choose between China and the US. Indeed, some are already leaning towards China — and under duress; others may do so as well.
Meanwhile China is likely to continue its successful soft power and “salami slicing” approach to dominating Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. This includes small step-by step physical advances, economic aid and investment and dealing with its rival claimants in a reasonable and non-threatening manner.
It will also likely make good use of America’s public relations vulnerabilities. The sordidness of the recent US election process and its result confirm some of the region’s worst fears about the US. To many, the recent developments appear exemplary not of the ideals of humankind but of the worst instincts of human and state behaviors. In this scenario, the Trump administration is unlikely to care much about its image in Asia as long as China does not interfere with trade and US business’ ability to make money. This may be the most that can be hoped for. However this plays out, US-China relations are likely in for a rough patch, especially in the South China Sea.