Over at Foreign Affairs, Mira Rapp-Hooper and Charles Edel explore a question we have been asking ourselves lately: why has the Trump administration not conducted any freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea? For a president who once railed against China’s “military fortress” in the sea, the administration’s repeated rejection of naval operations to challenge China’s claims has been a puzzle. According to Rapp-Hooper and Edel, it could suggest a dangerous linkage in Trump’s policy thinking:
Exactly why the South China Sea has fallen off the administration’s agenda is not clear. But it is possible that U.S. officials have decided to lift the pressure on China’s maritime outposts because they believe that doing so could help secure Beijing’s help in managing North Korea. […]
If this is the administration’s logic, it is deeply flawed. China is indeed capable of pressuring North Korea, since Beijing supports much of that country’s economy. But China has long prioritized the stability of the Korean Peninsula over its denuclearization, and those preferences will not change. […] China will not ignore its interests in the Korean Peninsula simply because Washington gives up its own interests in the South China Sea.
Even if the decision to pause FONOPs is not about North Korea, the authors go on to argue, it is nonetheless a misguided move that would benefit Beijing at America’s expense. At stake is not just a vague commitment to international law, but perceptions of U.S. credibility among China’s neighbors:
If the Trump administration does not seek to rally Southeast Asian countries to support the waterway’s openness, those countries will have little reason to stand up to China on their own. States in the region, including U.S. partners, will quickly presume that Washington is pulling back from Asia and will increasingly view China as the region’s most dependable power, despite its misbehavior at sea. The result would be a tilt in Asia’s balance of power toward Beijing.
Indeed, the last point here is something that we have already seen happening: with Washington missing in action on the South China Sea, China’s rival claimants have begun to conclude that the U.S. can no longer be relied upon, and are instead moving to cut bilateral deals with Beijing. Restarting FONOPs would not solve that problem overnight, but it would certainly be a good start—and the Foreign Affairs essay offers a persuasive explanation as to why.
Do read the whole thing.