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Change in Secretary of State Restarts US Diplomacy in Disputed South China Sea

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson waves goodbye at the State Department in Washington, March 13, 2018, after his firing earlier in the day. President Donald Trump said he would nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo as the top U.S. diplomat.

Rex Tillerson’s ouster as U.S. Secretary of State this month will reset Washington’s foreign policy on the widely contested South China Sea, analysts say.

The former oil company CEO, fired by President Donald Trump Tuesday, was getting a feel for the six-country maritime sovereignty dispute, but experts say a lack of personal connections in diplomacy plus Trump’s focus on North Korea, not Southeast Asia, restricted what he could do.

“He was considered an outsider, but he worked his way (in),” said Alexander Huang, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. Trump fired Tillerson over disagreements in strategy, news media in Washington say.

A maritime policy showed signs of evolving, Huang said.

“He was just about to build some allies within the apparatus, and his style is more predictable than the president, and he has been more prudent,” he said of Tillerson.

FILE - The USS Carl Vinson is anchored at Tien Sa Port in Danang, Vietnam, March 5, 2018.
FILE - The USS Carl Vinson is anchored at Tien Sa Port in Danang, Vietnam, March 5, 2018.

Slow start

The United States does not claim any of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, but Southeast Asian countries that do have claims look to Washington for help in resisting maritime expansion by China. Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. government offered political, economic and military support to the smaller maritime nations.

Beijing claims about 90 percent of the sea, which is rich in fisheries and fossil fuel deposits. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all claim swathes of it, competing in some cases with the Chinese holdings. Taiwan calls the whole sea its own as well.

U.S. Defense officials have led South China Sea policy under Trump, analysts say, with half a dozen naval voyages through the contested waters, including a visit by the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group earlier this month. Trump is seen focusing his diplomatic energy on stronger relations with China for its help curbing the nuclear and missile programs in North Korea.

Tillerson struggled to make vital connections in Washington, some regional political scholars say.

“Tillerson did not have support of subordinates like assistant secretaries and deputy secretaries with special focus on Southeast Asia,” said Jay Batongbacal, a University of the Philippines law and international maritime affairs professor.

“Probably because of that, Tillerson’s attention to Southeast Asia has been rather limited,” Batongbacal said. “He did make some reports in the past few months, there were certain efforts, but it took that long for them to come around.”

After two 2017 encounters with government ministers in Southeast Asia, Tillerson and his counterparts “worked to improve cooperation on … maritime disputes in the South China Sea,” the department said on its website in January without elaborating.

Tillerson had also encountered the South China Sea issue as former CEO of ExxonMobil when his company signed an agreement with Vietnam’s state-owned oil company to extract gas from the seabed starting in 2023.

FILE - Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "Worldwide Threats" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 13, 2018.
FILE - Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "Worldwide Threats" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 13, 2018.

New head, new start

Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo, the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency, will take over with more foreign affairs-related experience. Pompeo was previously a U.S. congressman and member of the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee.

The nominee has “detailed knowledge” and connections in political intelligence, Batongbacal believes. The U.S. Senate will need to confirm his appointment.

Pompeo is a “hawk” on foreign policy, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

He has a chance to diversify U.S. South China Sea policy away from the largely military one today.

“Right now, the Pentagon is running our policy, which is problematic because there are no military solutions to the (maritime) disputes, and the Pentagon, while critical in implementing some aspects of South China Sea policy, can’t succeed without a larger diplomatic strategy played out in the other branches,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Institute under a Washington-based think tank.

China, keeper of the world’s third most powerful armed forces, has irked other countries since 2010 by landfilling and expanding some of the sea’s tiny islets for military use and passing coast guard vessels through disputed waters.

Trump at the helm

Whether a new secretary of state can deepen U.S. involvement in the South China Sea dispute hinges on Trump, experts say.

“The really core U.S. diplomatic decisions have long been aggregated away from the understaffed State Department onto the White House,” said Oh Ei Sun, international studies instructor at Singapore Nanyang University. “But Pompeo would perhaps have more access to and ideological influence on Trump.”

The president still hopes to work with China on North Korea, Chong said. China is North Korea’s most powerful ally. An aggressive South China Sea stance could anger Chinese President Xi Jinping and cause friction with Trump.

“The Xi-Trump honeymoon may not quite be over, and President Trump is still the businessman at heart, and I think he can easily be bowled over by some grand gesture,” Chong said.