Washington Zig-Zags in the South China Sea

Washington Zig-Zags in the South China Sea

Is Trump allowing China to take over in exchange for reining in Kim Jong-un?

The latest American assertion of freedom-of-navigation rights in the South China Sea may have reassured some that new bonhomie between presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping won’t lead to abandonment of the region. But questions remain.

On May 24, the guided missile destroyer USS Dewey passed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, a land feature occupied by China in the South China Sea. Analysts who had followed and criticized China’s campaign to control the sea, upon learning of this Freedom of Navigation Operation may have shared the same thought: Finally! 

Not since mid-October 2016 had the US been reported to have conducted such operations in the South China Sea.  Since Trump’s inauguration in January, the Pacific Command had repeatedly been denied permission to conduct such a transit. 

Speculation abounds. Was the Dewey’s sail-by a one-off?  Or did it augur a resumption of US efforts to forestall Chinese maritime dominion?  Defense Secretary James Mattis will speak at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this week, and perhaps the Dewey’s route is meant to reinforce a message of reassurance for Asian leaders, that the United States is not resigned to Chinese primacy in the South China Sea.

News of the Dewey’s trip was not formally announced.  Nor was it accompanied by an official promise to follow up with further freedom-of-navigation operations.  Any assuaging message, if intended, was thereby undercut, all the more so by Trump’s reputation for unpredictability and impulsiveness. 

Uncertainty abounds, too, as the region is left to wonder whether the Trump administration will make an ongoing commitment or will it offer, by implication, a transaction in the shorter run: suspension of US willingness to check China in the South China Sea, in return for Chinese willingness to check North Korea.

China’s behavior may have made these questions academic.  For several years, Washington has watched Beijing turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake.  Impunity has benefited the pace of appropriation, and already some analysts have concluded the game is over.  The stronger, less reversible, China’s maritime position becomes, the less valuable – bargainable – an American offer to accommodate it will be.

American indifference has facilitated, or at least not impeded, China’s efforts eventually to establish full-spectrum sway over one of the economically and strategically most crucial waterways in the world.  A million square kilometers larger than the Mediterranean, the South China Sea is vital for the many countries that border or use it – including China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and, not least, the United States.

Obama-style “strategic patience” not only failed to lessen the missile-tossing truculence of Pyongyang.  It failed to slow Beijing’s drive to dominate the South China Sea. Washington warned Beijing not to build up the land features it controlled; China did so anyway.  Washington warned Beijing not to militarize those properties; China did so anyway despite Xi’s public pledge to the contrary.  Freedom-of-navigation operations were few, intermittent and increasingly far between, despite a promise to conduct them twice every three months. 

 Meanwhile, ASEAN’s leaders were the objects of vigorous renminbi diplomacy by China – attractive gifts and loans repayable in silence and deference.  The Obama administration offered principles instead:  good governance and navigational freedom. The Trans-Pacific Partnership promoted the first; freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea defended the second.

In San Francisco in February 2016, an astute Malaysian asked his American audience to put themselves in Southeast Asian shoes:  The Chinese offer you a stack of cash to spend.  The Americans offer you a stack of principles to follow.  Which offer do you accept?  It was a rhetorical question.

Trump may have abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s provisions for reasons of good economic governance. But why was the principle of navigational freedom neglected?  Why were the freedom-of-navigation operations performed less often under Obama and stopped altogether under Trump? 

A one-word answer could be linkage.  Obama’s White House, including the National Security Council, viewed US relations with China as multi-stranded.  Provoking Beijing with such operations risked losing cooperation on other issues that mattered to Washington:  economic discrimination, cybersecurity, global warming, North Korea. 

As for Trump, initially, discontinuance of the operations could have been due to the new administration’s internal disarray and lack of staff.  By May, however, it appeared that Washington might not be restarting them for a different reason:  to incentivize Beijing to alleviate American economic concerns and restrain Pyongyang. 

It’s become conventional to distinguish Obama’s “strategic patience” from Trump’s “transactional dealing,” but linkage is present in both approaches.  Both subordinate America’s interest in restraining Chinese maritime assertions in East Asia to America’s interest in gaining Chinese cooperation on other matters.  In effect, Obama and Trump alike had bigger fish to fry.  China’s salami-slicing tactic also made its incremental advances too insignificant to pick a fight over.

The Dewey’s voyage past Mischief Reef has broken a string of seven months without freedom-of-navigation operations, raising more policy questions. If operations do resume, does that mean Washington has also broken the linkage to other issues on which China could be helpful?  Is it that freedom is worth defending in its own right?  And what if no further operations ensue or follow a haphazard pattern?

Reassurances matter.  In May, during his first trip to Europe, President Trump could have recommitted his country to defense of NATO partners by endorsing Article 5.  He did not.  Europeans now have reason to doubt America’s willingness to defend them against Russia President Vladimir Putin’s desire to destabilize or even retake Russia’s former satellite states.  If the Dewey’s journey was not a resumption, but merely a one-time blip, will ASEAN’s leaders echo Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel in doubting America’s willingness to restrain Xi’s maritime ambitions in its own “near abroad”?

Southeast Asian policy elites may already assume that the Trump administration doesn’t care about their region.  The gap between what these elites want from the US and what they expect to get emerges clearly in an April survey of more than 300 influential officials, businesspeople, scholars, journalists and activists across the 10 ASEAN countries on “How do Southeast Asians View the Trump Administration,” conducted by ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute

Of these respondents, an impressive 70 percent agreed that “Southeast Asia is more stable and secure with active US engagement.”  But 56 percent expected the US to become less engaged in Southeast Asia, while 52 percent felt that the Trump administration was “not interested” in the region or considered it “irrelevant.” 

As to which country or regional organization was the “most influential” in Southeast Asia, a mere 4 percent of the respondents chose the United States, compared to the 18 percent who cited ASEAN and the whopping 74 percent who chose China.  An even higher proportion, 80 percent, expected China to fill any “strategic vacuum” in the region that American “indifference” might create. 

There is one supportive result for Washington in the April survey:  68 percent of the respondents agreed that “the US will uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”  The Trump administration should live up to that expectation.  The Dewey’s sail-by should be followed by additional trips, performed regularly, publicly acknowledged, and justified by stating and restating strategic conviction:  that no one country – not the United States, China, Japan nor any other state – should exercise exclusive control over the South China Sea. Such commitment, far from a chip to bargain with, is a key interest of the United States itself.

Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University. This is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal, the website of the Yale University Center for the Study of Globalization. 

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