Trump appears to have forgotten the South China Sea in 2017

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Donald Trump previously talked tough on China’s controversial activities in the South China Sea, but during much of his first year in the White House, he virtually ignored the issue, giving Beijing free rein in the area.

In a March 2016 interview with The New York Times, the then Republican candidate accused the Communist-run nation of building “a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen” in the South China Sea. He also blamed then-president Barack Obama for Beijing’s adventurism, stating, “they do that at will because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country.”

In early December 2016, President-elect Trump again publicly attacked the Asian power for building “a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea.” Speaking to Reuters in February 2017, the newly inaugurated president reiterated his criticism of Chinese militarization and of his predecessor Obama for allowing it to happen.

Such a view was also aired by many of his top aides.

In November 2016, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, two key Trump advisers, pointed out that China had built massive artificial islands in the disputed waters “with very limited American response.” They accused the Obama administration of “pointedly” refusing to intervene in 2012 when China “brazenly” seized the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal.

At his Senate confirmation hearing in January 2017, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, called Beijing’s construction and militarization of islands illegal and “extremely worrisome.” The former ExxonMobil boss also charged that the Obama government had failed to deal with the problem, saying such a failure “has allowed [China] to just keep pushing the envelope on this.”

He then vowed that the Trump White House was “going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”

Yet for all their harsh rhetoric, the Trump administration has done almost nothing about the Asian power’s expansionist behavior during the past 11 months. Worse, even rhetorically, it downgraded, if not almost forgot, the matter. This was clearly manifested during Trump’s 12-day trip to five Asian nations in November.

True, some customary bilateral declarations, such as the US-Vietnam joint statement, issued during the lengthy trip referred to the South China Sea. A readout from his China visit said Trump raised the issue when meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping. After his tour, Trump also revealed that in Manila, where he met with regional leaders, he “made it clear that no one owns the oceans.” This comment could be seen as a veiled swipe at China.

Trump publicly avoided comment on Beijing’s expansion and militarization activities even though he had plenty of appropriate opportunities to raise them during his first outing to the Asian region

However, except for once in Vietnam when he offered to mediate between South China Sea claimants, a casual offer not yet accepted by any, Trump publicly avoided comment on Beijing’s expansion and militarization activities even though he had plenty of appropriate opportunities to raise them during his first outing to the region.

For instance, his remarks in a joint press statement with Xi in Beijing, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, and the US-ASEAN summit in Manila didn’t mention the South China Sea at all. In his APEC speech, he named “territorial expansion” as one of the threats to regional security but put it at the end of a long list of threats that include criminal cartels, human smuggling, corruption and cybercrime.

By comparison, president Obama often put the long-simmering dispute front and center on the agenda of his meetings with regional leaders. For example, in remarks before his (last) meeting with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders in Laos in September 2016, he pledged “to work to ensure that disputes are resolved peacefully, including in the South China Sea.”

Obama also remarked that the landmark decision on the South China Sea by a Hague-based tribunal two months earlier, “which is binding, helped clarify maritime rights in the region.” His comments were primarily aimed at China, as Beijing vehemently opposed US involvement in the dispute and especially the tribunal’s ruling that overwhelmingly invalidated its expansive claims and aggressive actions in the region.

As for Trump, in addition to sidelining the South China Sea issue and especially China’s maritime activities, he also heaped praise on the one-party state and its authoritarian leader Xi Jinping while in Beijing.

All of this shows, for all his previous strong criticisms of China’s aggressive behavior and his predecessor’s policy, Trump barely paid attention to Beijing’s actions in the hotly disputed sea during his first year in the White House.

Trump’s indifference gave Beijing free rein to fortify its presence in the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea in 2017.

Having carried out massive land reclamation in the area in previous years, China quietly – but substantially – built up military facilities on its occupied and man-made islands last year.

Satellite images published in December by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies show that in 2017 China built 29 hectares of new permanent facilities on its outposts, which now bristle with huge military-related facilities – including bunkers, aircraft hangars and shelters for radar, aircraft, warships and artillery.

A recent Chinese report also praised Beijing’s significant expansion last year, stating that the construction progressed steadily. It also noted that China’s facilities were mainly built to meet various types of civil needs but also to meet the necessary military defense needs.

At the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October, Xi hailed island building as one of his top achievements and touted the “successful prosecution of maritime rights.”

These developments indicate two important points. First, unlike before, China no longer hides or denies its expansion and militarization activities in the resource-rich sea. Second, having been able to build huge military-related infrastructure at full throttle on its artificial islands without any meaningful objection from the US and related countries last year, it’s likely that Beijing will station its military equipment and personnel there in the years to come.

In addition to steadily advancing on the ground, in 2017 China succeeded in neutralizing pushback from other claimants in the sea and states in the region that had been critical of – and played a key role in checking – China’s maritime adventurism in previous years.

Perhaps with the exception of Vietnam, all ASEAN member states, including three other claimants to territory in the South China Sea – Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei – now adopt an accommodative or at least indifferent posture toward China’s maritime behavior.

For instance, Singapore was traditionally skeptical and critical of Beijing’s maritime posture and this led to the deterioration of bilateral ties. Yet late last year, the city-state had to mend fences with its giant neighbor.

Many different factors contributed to this shift. These include China’s huge economic pressure or incentives, Beijing’s relatively magnanimous posture toward its smaller neighbors, and its decision to agree a framework for a Code of Conduct, a formalized process for maritime dispute settlement, with ASEAN.

Trump was so obsessed with North Korea’s missile and nuclear program and America’s trade imbalance that he almost ignored Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, and forced the states in the region make a significant shift away from Washington and toward Beijing

Yet a key contributing factor was Donald Trump. With his “America first” foreign policy, the US president abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). For countries in the region such as Vietnam and Singapore, this huge Pacific Rim pact was not merely a trade deal. It also had significant strategic implications. In their views, the US withdrawal indicated that it no longer valued the promises it made, its partnership with Asia-Pacific countries and its engagement with the region.

This, coupled with the fact that Trump was so obsessed with North Korea’s missile and nuclear program and America’s trade imbalance that he almost ignored Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, and forced the states in the region make a significant shift away from Washington and toward Beijing.

If all these trends continue, sooner or later, Beijing will completely control the vast sea, which is home to one of the world’s most important shipping lanes. This also means the United States’ dominance in the region will come to an end.

Trump’s recently unveiled National Security Strategy gave the South China Sea a brief mention, stating that China’s “efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.”

However, unless his administration radically shifts its foreign policy and posture toward the South China Sea in 2018, it may be too late for the US to restrain – let alone stop or reverse – China’s territorial and military expansion in the strategically vital waterway.

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