Donald Trump’s brief remark on the South China Sea may be more significant than you think.
On Sunday evening, U.S. President-Elect Donald J. Trump made his first public comment on the South China Sea since winning the U.S. presidential election on November 8. Taking to Twitter, Trump issued two tweets, mentioning the South China Sea alongside economic issues on the U.S.-China agenda:
Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into..
their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!
I don’t want to make close-reading tweets from the next president of the United States a habit, as they might not end up informing policy that could otherwise be shaped primarily by his staff and appointees, but there’s a few important points worth noting here and may be of interest to Diplomat readers.
First, the facts: China does not possess something that I would call a “massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea.” We’ve covered Chinese moves and developments in the South China Sea extensively here at The Diplomat, and the closest things that would come to what Trump is talking about would be the Chinese base at Woody Island in the Paracels, which hosts a full-time personnel contingent of around 1,400 People’s Liberation Army troops, or the Hainan Island submarine base. Neither is geographically in the “middle” of the South China Sea, exactly.
Trump could alternatively be referring to China’s seven artificial islands. Chinese President Xi Jinping famously resolved not to militarize these features, which are all in the Spratly Islands, but satellite imagery analysis has steadily shown China setting up dual-use infrastructure, including air strips, on these islands, suggesting that militarization could be forthcoming. The seven distinct artificial islands do not compose one single “massive military complex” and are interspersed with features occupied by other South China Sea claimants. A charitable read of the president-elect’s remark might concede that taken together, these Chinese initiatives can be described as a “massive military complex.” Trump has used the term “fortress” in the past, as well.
(As an aside, Trump’s remark on Chinese taxes on U.S. products is somewhat of a non-sequitur. China is part of the World Trade Organization and hasn’t faced criticism from the body for non-compliant tariffs against the United States. China has lost separate WTO cases against the United States, the European Union, and Japan over its restrictions on rare earth minerals, and against the EU and Japan over anti-dumping tariffs related to stainless steel imports.)
Second, the South China Sea claimants: Trump’s tweets imply that China should be asking the United States permission to build military facilities in the South China Sea. While it is true that Chinese claims in the South China Sea are capacious, provocative, and in conflict with international law, the United States is not a claimant in the South China Sea and has made a policy of not taking a position on questions of sovereignty in these disputes. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan are the other formal claimants in the South China Sea. (Part of Indonesia’s claimed exclusive economic zone overlaps with China’s claims as well.)
Assuming that Trump’s tweet can shed any insight on U.S. policy toward the South China Sea, it is likely that, for the first time since relations between the United States and China were normalized, we may see the United States (and not Beijing) overtly link the bilateral economic and security agendas. For instance, as Trump alludes, China’s monetary policy could come to influence how the United States conceives of its role in the South China Sea. The United States and China, as two large powers, have a comprehensive bilateral agenda that encompasses cooperation and cooperation at the bilateral, regional, and global levels.
For hawks in China, where a domestic debate exists on the correct path forward for the country in the South China Sea, Trump’s tweets will be a welcome development. Here you have the incoming president of the United States implying that Beijing would have to ask for U.S. permission to undertake activities in what China regards as its sovereign territory.
For Chinese proponents of further unilateral actions in the South China Sea, including, but not limited to, the declaration of an air defense identification zone, additional land reclamation activities, or the overt militarization of the Spratly artificial islands, Trump’s tweet will be an important data point. (I’d expect to see commentaries in the Global Times and other Chinese outlets seizing on this as well.) Trump, with his insinuation, may vindicate certain voices in China who’ve long argued that territorial hegemony is the United States’ final goal in the South China Sea and the U.S. Navy’s plan for the Asia-Pacific’s maritime environs more broadly.
It’s additionally notable that Trump’s comment on the South China Sea comes shortly after his historic decision to break with U.S. precedent and speak with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Though China’s reaction was subdued against Trump and the United States — likely because he still the president-elect awaiting inauguration — Trump’s South China Sea remark suggests a further application of pressure on a Chinese “core interest.” State sovereignty, national unity, and territorial integrity are among China’s “core interests.”
As I remarked shortly after Trump’s tweet, Chinese foreign policy-makers will have little precedent to work with when it comes to interpreting Trump’s signal. As the Taiwan phone call episode demonstrated, Trump will likely get a pass as president-elect, but continued statements of this sort after January 20 could have the effect of setting U.S.-China relations on a negative trajectory.
Though Trump spoke extensively about China during his campaign for the presidency — both during the primary and the general election periods — he did not comment widely on the South China Sea disputes. In April 2016, one of the few times he spoke about the issue in an interview, he had the following to say to the New York Times: “We have rebuilt China, and yet they will go in the South China Sea and build a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen,” Trump said. “Amazing, actually. They do that, and they do that at will because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country.”
Trump has not to date addressed or offered specific criticisms of Obama administration initiatives in the South China sea in detail, including the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation program.