The U.S. government is challenging China over its dominant position in Asia’s major maritime sovereignty dispute, but those moves, after months of silence, are seen as aimed at reassuring nervous Southeast Asian countries rather than as a major anti-Beijing pivot.
President Donald Trump has shelved the South China Sea issue for most of his nearly half-year term as he tries to get along with Beijing, especially seeking Chinese help in throttling missile and nuclear weapons development in North Korea.
But on May 24, the U.S. Navy passed a destroyer near a Chinese-held artificial islet in the contested sea’s Spratly chain. Then on Saturday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told an annual Asian security event, the Shangri-la Dialogue, that China’s construction of artificial islands for military deployments hurts regional stability.
“U.S. partners have been looking forward to (Shangri-la) for months as a chance for Mattis to assure everyone that Asia policy isn’t as adrift as it seems, including on the South China Sea,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of American think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The most optimistic reading now is that the speech and things like the (destroyer’s passage) show that Mattis and the Pentagon ‘get it,’ and therefore the security side of U.S. engagement in Asia, including in the South China Sea, will be relatively stable,” he said.
China has led landfill and militarization work in the 3.5-million-square-kilometer tropical sea over the past decade to enforce a widely disputed claim over about 95 percent of it. The Chinese claim overlaps those of less militarily equipped Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. military passed vessels through the sea more often, Beijing's anger notwithstanding. Obama also helped Vietnam and the Philippines boost military capabilities.
Washington does not have a claim but wants the sea – rich in fisheries, shipping lanes and fossil fuel deposits -- to stay open for non-Chinese use and navigation.
The Southeast Asian claimants had wondered whether Trump would risk a break in China’s help on North Korea to challenge its maritime expansion, said Oh Ei Sun, international studies instructor at Singapore Nanyang University. He called the Trump government’s approach to the South China Sea to date “case-by-case” and “spontaneous.”
“A lot of countries in the region, we are eagerly awaiting such a pronouncement of a more prominent U.S. policy here, but so far I don’t think we have seen it yet,” Oh said. “I think both the frequency as well as the intensity of so-called freedom of navigation operations on the South China Sea nowadays they are perhaps in no way as frequent or as intense as during the Obama Administration."
Without a U.S. show of force against China, the world’s third most militarily powerful nation, countries in Southeast Asia are expected to tilt their foreign policies toward Beijing rather than Washington. China is keen to talk and offer aid in exchange for avoiding harsh protests against China’s maritime military expansion, analysts say.
China offered the Philippines $24 billion in aid and investment last year. It has also pumped Vietnam’s economy with tourists while discussing maritime cooperation.
Also upping the pressure on China, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last month that militarization and island building in the sea must stop while sovereignty disputes are being hashed out, according to news reports from Washington.
Still, the U.S. government must be “walking and chewing gum at the same time” to sustain cooperation with Beijing on North Korea, said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia.
“At some point this year hopefully, a national security strategy will reemerge, from which will flow a maritime national security strategy that will then fill in the details,” Thayer said. “Maybe these comments by Mattis and Tillerson are an indication of the kinds of elements that would be in a national security strategy.”
“What has to be judged is how strongly China is going to react,” he added.
As North Korea’s chief ally, China said via Communist Party-run media it would increase sanctions that could cut the amount of petroleum exported to North Korea, which relies on China for about 90 percent of its petroleum imports. Beijing has also indicated it would restrict imports of North Korean coal.
China protested the U.S. destroyer’s navigation in the Spratly Islands by seeking an explanation for the move, which it said “trespassed” into its waters. Its reaction overall to the Trump Administration’s South China Sea position is milder than the same under Obama, analysts say.
Trump knows he can raise the pressure as needed to get other concessions from China, said Kwei-bo, associate diplomacy professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
“The South China Sea is definitely one of Trump’s bargaining chips,” Huang said. “It will be bound up with Sino-U.S. trade and economic relations.”