Analysts and government officials interested in the South China Sea imbroglio are befuddled and frustrated by US President Donald J. Trump’s flip-flopping policy regarding China’s claims and actions there. Apparently this prevarication is an example of Trump’s “transactional” approach to foreign policy. But this is not just a question of style. Trump’s backpedaling and bargaining have fundamental implications for the security paradigm in the region and perhaps beyond.
Some commentators had welcomed the Trump administration’s early statements indicating it would be “tough” on China. In particular, his rhetoric during the presidential campaign and early statements from his administration officials indicated that freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea would become more frequent during his administration.
Trump’s Secretaries of State (Rex Tillerson) and Defense (James Mattis) both talked tough about China at their confirmation hearings. Such statements and the tantalizing hope they engendered stimulated a flurry of op-eds and statements urging a more muscular US policy towards China in the South China Sea. For example, after Secretary Tillerson suggested that the US might prevent access by China to features it occupies in the South China Sea, an 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.
Friend and foe alike were misled. As late as May 2, 2017, Trump’s nominee for Ambassador to China Terry Branstad said at his confirmation hearings that “China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce neighbors or limit freedom of navigation or over flight.” Clearly, he and others thought that was the Trumpian line to be followed, and did so. During his February visit to Asia, Secretary Mattis assured his Japanese counterparts that the US would be more active in asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
But it now appears that they had jumped the gun. President Trump, his advisers, and his relevant cabinet picks are now singing a different tune. Despite having previously questioned the One China policy, Trump subsequently told China’s President Xi Jinping that he will honor and observe it. Moreover, Secretary Tillerson “clarified” his earlier remarks indicating that he is not pushing for a blockade of the China-occupied features in the South China Sea. Secretary Mattis also walked back on his previously belligerent stance, saying that the US will 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.”
This shift, as temporary as it may be, included turning down three CINCPAC (Commander in Chief Pacific) requests to carry out new FONOPs against China in the South China Sea. These requests were made because they were what CINCPAC thought the Trump administration wanted. To smooth over this rejection, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis explained that US FONOPs will continue but that information “on these operations will be released publicly in the annual FONOPs report, and not sooner.” US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift maintained that “there has been no policy change” with regard to FONOPs. But he added weakly that “we just present the opportunities … They are either taken advantage of or they’re not.” This may be so but the decision not to publicly challenge China’s “excessive” jurisdictional and territorial claims after doing so for several years is quite a climb-down, and in some analysts’ eyes detracts from the defense of international law which the US claims to uphold.
Secretary Tillerson then told the ASEAN Foreign Ministers in a May 4 meeting in Washington that “the United States can’t always condition its foreign relationships and national security efforts on countries adopting US values like human rights.” This must have been sweet music to China’s ears. Indeed, these “qualifications” mark a departure from past policy and apparently came as a shock to some analysts and policy practitioners.
This flip-flop has left many analysts and Asian leaders shaking and scratching their heads. It appears that Trump, in his “let’s make a deal” approach to foreign policy, has backed off criticism and actions against China in the South China Sea in return for its assistance in stopping North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development programs.
The transactional approach to foreign policy clearly has a downside in that the US is no longer using principles as its guiding light in its foreign policy — if it ever did. It is now clearly and unabashedly focusing on “what’s in it for us.”
In response to this foreign policy approach, some analysts have lashed out. Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy opined that the Trump administration “can’t chew gum and walk at the same time” in dealing with China. He argued that the nuclear threat from North Korea and China’s assertiveness and militarization in the South China Sea must be “dealt with simultaneously” and that they are not “transactional issues.” Another analyst said he hoped “this transactional approach doesn’t give the Chinese the impression that this is a tacit acknowledgement of Beijing’s outrageous claims of sovereignty over international waters.”
More worrying than these analysts’ angst, this abrupt policy change erodes the trust and confidence in America of its allies and its friends. Apparently, the Trump administration has belatedly realized this and is trying to address that unintended consequence. In an effort to bolster confidence in the region in US staying power, Secretary Tillerson told the ASEAN Foreign Ministers that “we’re quite aligned on the principles and the objectives [of working together]. It’s clear from the US perspective that we want to ensure that air and maritime transit is free, and the ASEAN partners that we have can count on the US to assert these rights for us and for all.”
Contributing to this effort to restore trust and confidence, Vice President Mike Pence said during a visit to Indonesia that Trump will attend the US-ASEAN, East Asian, and APEC Summits, and that this would be “a sign, I hope to all, of our firm and unwavering commitment to build on the strong foundations that we already share.”
But in the face of Trump’s policy shifts, these words ring hollow. Many are now skeptical of the Trump administration’s commitment to Asia in general, let alone constraining China in the South China Sea. After Trump’s pledge to withdraw from the US-proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said “Now you say ‘I will walk away, that I do not believe in this deal’. How can anyone believe in you anymore?” These are rather damning words from a “friend and partner” of the US. Increasingly, Trump’s “America First” mantra is beginning to sound to friends and allies more like “you are on your own.” This turnabout is viewed by some in the context of the “pivot” in which US rhetoric produced much higher expectations than were realized. It is true that under Trump, the Pentagon has requested nearly USD 8 billion over the next 5 years to bulk up its military presence in the region. But that is only a proposal and there may be “many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.”
The result is that some will not count on the US the way they did before. China’s success in having the current ASEAN Chair, the Philippines, cleanse the Chairman’s statement at the ASEAN annual meeting of any derogatory words against China has reinforced this sense of despair and frustration. This is likely to increase hedging by some ASEAN members, especially Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, which to some extent were already sitting on the fence. Worse yet, China itself is unlikely to trust the Trump administration’s future commitments, particularly those assuring it of the US’ good intentions. To make a lasting “deal,” the parties need to be able to believe that each will fulfill its part of the bargain.
By engaging in horse trading with China rather than sticking to principles, the US is on a slippery slope. China is very adept at international bargaining, having had thousands of years of experience and practice. Indeed, in the run-up to Trump and Xi Jinping’s April meeting at Mar-a-Lago, China reportedly asked Trump to dismiss CINCPAC Harry Harris — who is anathema to China’s military. Although this has been denied by both China and the US, it indicates the type of tradeoffs that might be involved in such bargains.
The transactional approach to foreign policy clearly has a downside in that the US is no longer using principles as its guiding light in its foreign policy — if it ever did. It is now clearly and unabashedly focusing on “what’s in it for us.” For those nations that believed in and depended on the US to defend them and their shared principles, this is a whole new ball game fraught with uncertainty.