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US Pivots Back to Hard Line on China Over Disputed Sea

FILE - Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey transits the South China Sea.
FILE - Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey transits the South China Sea.

A second U.S. naval mission to the disputed South China Sea over the past six weeks indicates President Donald Trump is increasing pressure on Beijing after a wait-and-see period, a windfall for Chinese maritime rivals in Southeast Asia.

But China is prepared for a U.S. role, analysts believe. It has become the dominant force over in the sea the past decade and is expected to answer U.S. moves by increasing economic ties with Southeast Asian countries that dispute Beijing's maritime expansion.

China will respond

The U.S. government will keep trying to offset China’s might in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea by passing naval vessels in the name of “freedom of navigation,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general with the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.

Trump had sidelined the maritime matter since April to seek China’s help in squelching North Korea’s missile program but may not have gotten what he expected.

“Holding back the freedom of navigation operations was trying to encourage China to do more in the nuclear crisis in North Korea, so this will continue to be one of the bargaining positions in the future,” Yang said.

The USS Stethem guided missile destroyer passed Sunday within 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometers) of Triton Island, a Chinese holding in the South China Sea’s Paracel Islands, the U.S. Naval Institute website said. Vietnam claims the Paracels and disputes China’s control over the archipelago in a sea that’s prized for fish, oil and natural gas.

In late May, the Trump Administration sent its first vessel into the South China Sea. The destroyer USS Dewey passed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, a Chinese-controlled feature in the sea’s Spratly Island chain.

The sea is open

Washington normally uses those ship movements to prove the U.S. government’s position that the sea is open to all despite Beijing’s claim that most of the waters fall under its flag. The United States doesn’t have a claim in the sea.

Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines do contest China’s claims. They resent its control of islets, some built from landfill, for military use and its passage of coast guard vessels through waters overlapping their own claims.

US/North Korea/China

After an early April meeting in Florida with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Trump had hoped for Chinese cooperation in curbing development of North Korean ballistic missiles and nuclear capabilities. Frustration with China, an old ally of Pyongyang, crested last week in sanctions against a Chinese shipping company over suspected help for North Korea’s weapons programs.

“I think the U.S. using either carrots or sticks to get China to apply more pressure on North Korea will not be successful,” said Steven Kim, a Korea scholar and University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D. holder.

China sent military ships and fighter planes in response to the U.S. destroyer’s passage Sunday, which the foreign ministry in Beijing called “provocation.”

China is used to this

But China is used to U.S. forays and knows what to expect, said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, political and security affairs fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“It’s just becoming routine,” Chalermpalanupap said. “They know the procedure and what to expect. And in the meantime I think the Chinese are making progress in winning hearts and minds on continental Southeast Asia.”

Since a world arbitration court ruled last year that the legal basis for China's maritime claim was invalid, Beijing has been privately working out deals with the Southeast Asian claimants who the same ruling favored.

China is spending money

In May China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to the outline for a code of conduct aimed at heading off accidents at sea. China has separately tapped its $11.2 trillion economy to offer individual claimants investment, tourism income and development aid.

Those offers have reached a “huge amount,” said Song Seng Wun, economist in the private banking unit of CIMB in Singapore. China also puts pressure on ASEAN chairs, which rotate each year, to play along with its political ambitions, he said.

China extends development aid in the name of its 4-year-old “belt-and-road” initiative that calls for extending Chinese investment as far as Eastern Europe.

“That will always be under the belt and road banner, so perhaps it’s also the case that investment will continue to grow,” Song said. “So (the) investment push will be concurrent with I think what’s happening on the political side.”

Over the past year, China has discussed funding two Philippine railway projects that would cost a combined $8.3 billion. It became Vietnam’s top foreign source of tourism last year and offered Malaysia a $12.8 billion in a railway line.

Southeast Asian maritime claimants will still "welcome" the U.S. government's refocus on the South China Sea as a "challenge" to the Chinese claim, Chalermpalanupap said.