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Mark J. Valencia:
By Mark J. Valencia - 16 Feb 2017
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.
US underwater drones can be categorized as Force Net, Sea Shield, Sea Strike and Sea Base. Force Net includes the missions of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and oceanography. Some may even be weaponized. Thus, it is easy to be uncertain regarding the mission of particular UUVs.
On 16 December, the US Department of Defense announced that it had issued a formal protest to China demanding the return of an underwater drone. After several days of verbal tit-for tat, China returned the drone. The US Navy is determining whether the seizure was a “low-level” action by the sailors or a top down message by senior Chinese leaders.
“Make America Great Again” was Trump’s campaign slogan. This probably translates to a Reaganesque “peace through strength” approach. Implementing such a policy in Southeast Asia is likely to be accompanied by blusters, threats and shows of force and gunboat diplomacy.
A debate between Kurt Campbell, the architect of the US pivot to Asia, and Australian strategic thinker Hugh White makes clear that the South China Sea has become the cockpit of US-China competition for domination of Asia. The outcome may determine whose principles, values and “order” will shape the future of Asia.
In recent weeks, US-Philippines relations have undergone a rough patch as President Duterte has sought to “rebalance” Philippine foreign policy and lessen its dependence on the US. The reaction of policy makers and analysts in the US has ranged from anger to handwringing to ignoring the significance and roots of the problem.
It has now been nearly three months since the arbitral panel ruling against China’s claims to maritime space in the South China Sea. The decision has set in motion political and military adjustments. But none of them contribute to the resolution of the conflicting claims or to the contest between the US and China.
China has apparently decided to play for the longer term, leveraging its strong position on the ground while refraining from raising tension by initiating construction on Scarborough Shoal or declaring an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea.