Analysts trying to parse US policy in the Trump era regarding the South China Sea must be prepared for stark contradictions and intellectual whiplash. It is too early to draw conclusions regarding US-China relations in the South China Sea or in general. That is a major lesson to be gleaned from the events of the last several months.
First, we had US Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump accusing China of building “a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea”. Then newly inaugurated President Trump upset the apple-cart of US-China relations by accepting a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, and when China objected, he suggested that the bedrock of those relations — the One-China Policy — might be used as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with China.
Shortly thereafter, his nominee for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly stated that China should not be “allowed” to access the land features in the South China Sea that it has claimed, has built upon, and now occupies. This seemed to imply a “blockade” of some sort — which could be interpreted as an act of war. Then his nominee for Defense Secretary James Mattis opined that China’s behavior in the South China Sea was part of “a mounting assault on global stability.”
All this was capped off by the revelation that Trump’s closest adviser Steven Bannon believes that war with China is inevitable within the “next five to ten years.” Alarm bells were surely ringing in Beijing and in many capitals of Asian countries that do not want to be caught in between the two in a hot or cold war.
Numerous “experts” offered dire predictions for US-China relations and stability and peace in the South China Sea and Asia in general. Moreover, China bashers had a field day criticizing China’s behavior and urging a more muscular US policy towards China. One analyst from the US Naval War College even offered a legal rationale for the US to mount a blockade of China’s occupied islands in peacetime. I liken this article to the conniving, convoluted, and dangerous memos justifying torture during the George W. Bush administration.
However, it now appears that many of those analysts jumped the gun and went off half-cocked. President Trump, his advisers, and his relevant cabinet picks are now singing a different tune. Trump told China’s President Xi Jinping in a telephone call that he will honor and observe the One-China Policy. Moreover, Tillerson has “clarified” his remarks indicating that he is not pushing for a blockade of the China-occupied features or a change in the One-China Policy.
Mattis also lowered the political temperature by stating that the US 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.” But he (and later Trump) also confirmed that the Chinese-claimed and Japanese-controlled Diaoyutai/Senkaku features are covered by the US-Japan mutual defense treaty. And he reaffirmed that the US and South Korea will proceed with a missile defense system that China believes will undermine its security interests.
Nevertheless, many analysts — some the same ones who predicted dire consequences for the US-China relationship — are now predicting a relatively “smooth sailing” relationship, or at least a sort of conformity to the status quo, however one may interpret that.
I beg to differ. First of all, the very recent “unsafe encounter” between US and Chinese surveillance planes near the China-Philippines contested Scarborough Shoal is a harbinger of more to come. This incident occurred despite the US-China agreed protocol on avoiding unplanned aerial encounters at sea. Although the Pentagon said the encounter was “unintentional,” it is difficult to understand how two surveillance planes could have been unaware of the presence and course of each other. These types of incidents are usually neither unplanned nor unexpected as both countries’ militaries are trying to dominate the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (IRS) sphere over the South China Sea. Such incidents are likely to increase in frequency and severity as the two jockey for ISR “position.”
Freedom of navigation operations will continue and probably become more aggressive, and in China’s eyes, more provocative.
Also, the hoped-for binding, robust, and specific regional code of conduct for the South China Sea is wishful thinking — a “holy grail” just as unlikely to be attained.
But the more fundamental danger may stem from Trump’s volte-face regarding the One-China Policy. China may now think that the Trump administration is a “paper tiger” and they can call its bluffs with impunity. Trump and company may then feel pressed to react more strongly to any perceived Chinese provocation just to prove that they are indeed “tough.” After all, it was Tillerson who stated: “I think a lot of our troubles today are that we do not enforce—we make commitments, we say we are going to do something and then we don’t enforce it.” He may now be hung on his own petard. One can easily see where this conundrum may lead.
Worse, China is unlikely to trust the Trump administration’s future statements, particularly those assuring it of their good intentions. To make a lasting “deal,” the parties need to be able to believe that each will fulfill its part of the bargain. The Trump administration may have already expended much of its trust “capital” and credibility.
Unfortunately, this “trust” factor, or the lack of it, may well apply to “friends” and allies in Asia. Indeed, many are now skeptical of the Trump administration’s commitment to Asia, especially after his withdrawal from the US proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact. In October 2016, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in reference to the US withdrawal from the TPP, “Now you say ‘I will walk away, that I do not believe in this deal’. How can anyone believe in you anymore?” Moreover, Trump’s “America First” mantra is beginning to sound to friends and allies like “you are on your own,” despite attempts to assure them to the contrary.
In a potentially dangerous strategic misperception, it seems that the Trump administration thinks that its “friends” and allies will back it in a conflict with China. But as prominent analyst, retired Admiral Michael McDevitt has written, “Any US policy maker who builds a strategy around the assumption that our friends and allies will be with us in a shooting war with China is a fool.”
To top it off, US policy in the South China Sea has not changed much if at all. Freedom of navigation operations will continue and probably become more aggressive, and in China’s eyes, more provocative. Indeed, Mattis reportedly told Japanese officials that “the US would take a more aggressive stance in defending the freedom of navigation” regarding China’s claimed and occupied features and their territorial waters in the South China Sea. Overall, the US Navy’s presence in the region is likely to continue to be enhanced.
Of course, China for domestic reasons and in reaction to what it perceives as US bullying or a threat to its national interest or security may cross Trumpian “red lines,” like building on the Scarborough Shoal, declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone over the Spratlys, or deploying offensive weapons on its occupied features. And there could be spillover to the South China Sea from clashes in the even more volatile East China Sea.
So, a word to the wise for the shoot-from-the-hip analysts of US-China relations and the South China Sea: there are still many hurdles to be overcome before we can discern the trajectory of the US-China relationship going forward. There are many things that could go wrong.
Given President Trump’s predilection for making policy by the “seat of his pants,” we are likely to be in for more twists and turns, and even about-faces in US-China relations. It is simply too early to tell how this is all going to work out, particularly regarding the contest for military dominance in the South China Sea.