Since January, comments from the new Trump administration about the South China Sea have stirred controversy in Beijing. Starting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comparison of China’s actions in the South China Sea to Russia’s seizure of Crimea, the Trump administration has had a rocky start in diplomatic relations with China, especially concerning the tense territorial dispute over the South China Sea.
Over the past few decades, the South China Sea has been the site of conflicts between the People’s Republic of China and other countries. Why is maritime and territorial control in the South China Sea so important? According to estimates by China and other authorities, the South China Sea is potentially rich in untapped oil reserves. Additionally, it is strategically located for both trade and military use. Although the Trump administration is moving away from Barack Obama’s “pivot to East Asia,” it has yet to indicate its policies towards the region.
Obama’s “pivot to East Asia” focused on bilateral security alliances, developing and deepening relationships with regional powers, engaging with multilateral institutions, expanding trade and investment, forging a broad-based military presence, and advancing human rights. This reasserted American staying power in the Pacific and opened a path for long-term cooperation between China and the United States.
This past December, China seized an American drone that was testing salinity and temperature in international waters. After objections from the Obama administration, the drone was returned. Simon Denyur, the Washington Post’s Chinese Bureau chief, argues that this drone seizure was intended as an early assessment of the Trump administration after Trump’s questioning of the “One China” policy. This fed China’s aggressiveness, and China has used the seizure as an excuse to continue defense buildup in the South China Sea. Most recently, satellite photos show that China is building surface-to-air missile (SAM) facilities in the Spratly Islands, violating prior verbal agreements made by Chinese authorities. This can be seen as China proclaiming the South China Sea an Aircraft Defense Identification Zone, allowing the Chinese to monitor foreign aircrafts in its airspace.
The Trump administration has not been clear on its policy concerning the South China Sea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments during his confirmation hearing on preventing China from accessing its artificial islands resulted in serious backlash from The Global Times and other Chinese state-owned publications. He stated that the White House needed to send China a clear signal that access to South China Sea territories would not be allowed, even suggesting a blockade. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has emphasized that the US needs to protect its interests in the area, and Tillerson has compared China’s aggression in the South China Sea to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
It is unclear how these statements translate into a policy. China is currently aiming to increase civilian and military development on the islands. Any attempt to prevent China from accessing its interests in the region risks sparking a large-scale war, but it is not clear if the Trump administration is willing to address this risk
Mpaza Kapembwa, a graduate student in international policy at Georgetown University, does not think current American policy in the Pacific is overly aggressive, but rather sees it as in keeping with the United States’ “longstanding commitments to its Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese allies [which] require substantial military and diplomatic resources.” These relationships are increasingly important as China expresses its willingness to use force against American allies such as South Korea and Taiwan. From this perspective, a more involved policy in the South China Sea might suit the United States’ role in the region best. However, while the U.S. sees itself as a bastion of stability in the Pacific, China conversely believes that an American presence in the Pacific is a source of instability.
Hoping for Smooth Sailing
The Trump administration must develop a concrete plan to address the South China Sea that protects U.S. security guarantees to its allies and acknowledges China’s power in the Pacific.
Overt aggression is not the answer. If the administration sets up a blockade, it would risk violent escalation A high profile loss to Chinese air and naval bases would be a severe blow to the Trump administration. Harassing China will not work either. The United States cannot intimidate China enough to stop development in the South China Sea. Chinese leaders are pragmatic and would likely not risk losing their largest export market by engaging in armed conflict with the U.S., but directly confronting China in the South China Sea would have damaging trade and political outcomes that would not strengthen long-term US- Chinese relations.
However, a new policy must protect U.S. alliances in the area. Without U.S. support, China has the power to unilaterally solve territorial disputes in the region to the detriment of Taiwan and South Korea. President Trump should build strong relations with the five other nations involved with South China Sea disputes and develop a multilateral strategy that recognizes China’s power in the region while protecting its allies.
Lakshmi Iyengar is a junior at Yale College. Contact her at email@example.com