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 belligerent posture towards China in general and its actions in the South China Sea in particular. But the emerging policy is beginning to look more or less like a continuation of that of the Obama administration — with some new twists.
As one measure of US resolve vis-à-vis China, there were six Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea against China’s claims during the Obama administration, and the Pentagon indicated then that there would be about two per quarter. Trump’s rhetoric during the presidential campaign as well as the early statements from his relevant Cabinet picks indicated that FONOPs in the South China Sea would become more frequent during his administration. Following Trump’s lead, his Secretaries of State (Rex Tillerson) and Defense (James Mattis) both talked tough about challenging China’s actions in the South China Sea at their confirmation hearings.
But President Trump and these Cabinet officials soon began singing a different tune. Despite previously questioning the “one China” policy, Trump subsequently told China’s President Xi Jinping that he will honor and observe it. Tillerson “clarified” his earlier remarks, indicating that he would not push for a blockade of China-occupied features in the South China Sea. Mattis also walked back his previous bellicose stance, saying that the US would focus on diplomacy regarding the South China Sea disputes. According to Mattis, “at this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all.”
The Trump administration reportedly did not approve three PACOM (US Pacific Command) requests to carry out new FONOPs against China in the South China Sea. These requests were made largely because that is what PACOM thought the Trump administration wanted. US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift explained rather weakly that “we just present the opportunities … They are either taken advantage of or they’re not.”
Then it 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 and context of more recent US statements and actions. In his address to the Shangri-La Dialogue in early June, 2017, 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.” He upped the ante a bit by adding that the US “cannot and will not accept unilateral coercive changes to the status quo”. The speech indicated general continuity with the Obama administration’s policy — support for, and if necessary, enforcement of “the rules based international order”; encouraging a more interconnected region regarding security matters; enhancing US military capabilities there; and reinforcing its defense relations with allies and willing partners, including training and weapons sales. This is similar to former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s stated approach to the region. In keeping with this approach, the Pentagon has endorsed a plan to invest nearly USD 8 billion to expand the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region over the next five years.
Tillerson has more recently come out even stronger, telling Congress on 14 June that he has warned his Chinese counterparts that their current foreign policy will “bring us into conflict.” He acknowledged that US-China relations had reached “an inflection point” and could lead to war if not properly managed. He added that “you will not buy your way out of these other difficult issues, like North Korea, the South China Sea with your trade.”
However, this new more robust approach has so far failed to convince analysts and leaders in the region. According to Euan Graham, director of the security program at Australia’s Lowy Institute, the mixed messages are still there: “Officials are trying to demonstrate consistency against a pattern of inconsistency at the White House.” This perception may be due in part to Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy. Indeed, some leaders in the region see the Trump administration’s approach to the issues as “case-by-case” and “spontaneous” rather than consistent, predictable and based on principle. Rightly or wrongly, they see US FONOPs against China as a de facto bellwether of the US approach. In their view, the reduction in the frequency and intensity of FONOPS is not encouraging.
Meanwhile, the responsible decision makers like Mattis, Tillerson, and Trump himself, seem to be preoccupied with other issues and matters. In the de facto internal power vacuum, PACOM Commander Admiral 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 US line together across Asia.” Harris has military authority and renders strategic and tactical advice directly to policy makers regarding one third of the Earth’s surface and 36 nations. According to a Pentagon spokesperson, Harris has provided “frank and informed counsel to the President and the National Security Council,” and “that counsel has been considered and valued.” He reports to President Trump through Mattis. Harris does seem to have gained enhanced influence over US Asia policy formulation and its implementation. Some knowledgeable insiders say Mattis’ Shangri-La speech criticizing China’s actions in the South China Sea reflected Harris’s view that the US needs to stand up to China. Thus it behooves analysts to determine his approach to the issues.
If China is unwilling or unable to help sufficiently with North Korea, or with other “trade-offs” proposed by Trump, confrontation may become the sole approach.
In Harris’ own words, “We will continue to co-operate 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.” He added, “Our war-fighting readiness, our ability to fight tonight, will always be my top priority. We have to be ready for the unexpected. We have to be ready to prevent strategic surprises. When you are responsible for an area that covers half the worlds’ surface, you need friends. So building stronger relationships and working with our allies and partners, to foster a collective to the security challenges — that’s important.”
Harris is anathema to China because of his hawkish views and supposed affinity for Japan. He became infamous in China for calling its reclamation activities in the South China Sea the building of a “great wall of sand.” It was even rumored, falsely he maintains, that in early 2016 he was directed by Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice to cease his sharp rhetoric against China. Harris himself denied he had been muzzled, and as evidence pointed to his April 26, 2017 testimony before Congress that “China’s militarization of the South China Sea is problematic.” It was also rumored, and denied at both ends, that China requested that Harris be dismissed in exchange for its help with North Korea.
How is Harris’ perspective likely to play out in practice? He will likely offer both a stick and a carrot. Harris is quite concerned about China’s behavior in the South China Sea and wants to take aggressive actions to deter it. He has also reportedly criticized previous US FONOPs as overly cautious and indirectly confirming China’s claim to sovereignty over some of the features. So we can expect more and more robust FONOPs as well as continued intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance probes — which China views as provocative. But he will also extend a hand of cooperation, like inviting China to RIMPAC and continuing US Navy port visits to China.
This approach seems to be evidenced in recent US actions in the region. Under his command, in May 2017 two aircraft carrier strike groups were deployed to the western Pacific, one of which undertook in the South China Sea the first ever drills with Japan’s largest warship, the Izume helicopter carrier. The first FONOP under the Trump administration occurred in late May when the USS Dewey made a non-innocent passage within 12 nm of Mischief Reef. The reclaimed low tide elevation is, according to a Hague arbitral tribunal, illegally occupied by China. Mattis, who reportedly asked PACOM for a strategy for the South China Sea, said the Dewey FONOP was part of US strategy, but didn’t say what that strategy is.
This FONOP was promptly followed by a training exercise over the South China Sea, including two B-1B Lancer heavy strategic bombers liaising with the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Sterett. After this rather threatening exercise, the Sterett made a scheduled port visit to Zhanjiang, China. This was the first US warship visit to a Chinese port since August 2016. This was surprising for two reasons. First, China had criticized the B-1B “training flights,” saying that it “remains vigilant as the United States is stepping up its military presence in the disputed waters.” The second reason is that Zhanjiang is the headquarters of China’s South Sea Fleet responsible for Chinese naval operations in the South China Sea, and thus a strategic node in China’s defense network.
Leading the visit was the man who may replace Harris as PACOM next year, the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift. Swift maintained that US policy toward the South China Sea is consistent between the two administrations. But he also downplayed FONOPs themselves in favor of America’s “consistent presence” in the region. He said, “The amount of FONOPs we do is infinitesimal compared to our everyday exchanges. I don’t see how their operations in the South China Sea should be viewed from a Navy perspective as any more consequential than anywhere else.” This low-key statement is in keeping with a recent decision to not announce nor highlight FONOPs in the South China Sea. He added that the quieter approach equated to a softer US posture in the region.
Speaking subsequently in Manila, Swift stressed the US Pacific Fleet’s commitment to addressing shared regional security concerns including counterterrorism and piracy, but he made no mention of the South China Sea. This was also rather surprising because in July 2015, Swift participated in a well-publicized, China-opposed P-8A Poseidon surveillance flight over disputed areas of the South China Sea. Swift’s emphasis on collaboration reflects Harris’ dual approach.
For realists like Harris, the key to US security is to maintain military dominance in Asia. The US is challenging China’s ambition to be the dominant power in Asia and in doing so is trying to reassure nervous Southeast Asian countries. But as Singapore’s Minister of Defense put it after the Shangri-La Dialogue, “Everyone agreed on a rules-based order but what the exact rules are, who benefits, whether its accepted by more or less and how do you accommodate … regional interests, minority interests, were all questions raised.” Unfortunately, these questions and others remain unanswered. The conclusion is that the Trump administration’s policy regarding the South China Sea is a more robust version of the Obama administration’s policy of balancing risks and rewards. But if China is unwilling or unable to help sufficiently with North Korea, or with other “trade-offs” proposed by Trump, confrontation may become the sole approach. We will have to watch closely the interactions between the US and China in the South China Sea to chart the policy’s evolution.