During U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent swing through Asia, one key regional security issue — the South China Sea — received only limited attention, prompting questions about how focused the U.S. administration is on this disputed sea, and what implications this will have for China’s handling of reefs and shoals also claimed by its neighbors.
Trump mentioned the importance of freedom of navigation and open shipping lanes for trade while he participated in regional summits in Vietnam and in the Philippines. But he waited until the end of his trip to mention China in this context. Beijing has territorial and maritime disputes with five neighboring countries in the sea, and has spent considerable treasure building seven artificial islands in the Spratly Islands and equipping them with airfields, radar installations and missile shelters.
The U.S. president may have downplayed China’s actions in the hope that he could get more help from Beijing on North Korea’s nuclear program. But by avoiding China’s assertiveness in the maritime dispute, Trump played into the narrative of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Under his chairmanship this year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has softened its discussions of the South China Sea, in keeping with Duterte’s policy of ignoring a 2016 international arbitration ruling against Beijing’s territorial claims. Duterte hopes this will help repair relations with Beijing and win Manila billions of dollars of Chinese investment in infrastructure projects.
Trump’s only mention of China’s role in the dispute came in his last speech in the region, when he said simply: “I remain concerned about China’s efforts to build and militarize outposts on the South China Sea.”
Trump’s visit to Asia followed on the heels of a Chinese Communist Party congress that re-elected Chinese President Xi Jinping as party leader, prompting analysts in countries with competing South China Sea claims to try to determine the implications for Beijing’s future policy.
Some Southeast Asia analysts focused on Xi’s emphasis on domestic issues in his opening speech to conclude that China would be content with its current position in the South China Sea because its level of control has improved markedly in recent years while protests from neighbors, except for Vietnam, have largely subsided over the past year.
On top of that, the U.S. has barely begun to outline its policies toward the South China Sea and Southeast Asia. Much of the Trump administration’s policy toward the disputed sea has focused on freedom of navigation operations to challenge Beijing’s excessive claims. The U.S. Navy has conducted four freedom of navigation operations in the disputed sea this year and has established a schedule of regular patrols every few months.
Alternative to “rebalancing”
In his policy speech in Vietnam, Trump began outlining his notion of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” an apparent alternative to his predecessor’s concept of an American “rebalancing” toward Asia. One component of this idea, first touted by Japan, will be an effort to challenge China by bolstering relations with Japan, India and Australia, but Trump offered little detail about how this would be done.
Other observers, however, are not so sure that China will be content with the status quo in the South China Sea. They latch onto Xi’s reference to “steady progress” in the construction of islands in the sea as a major achievement in his first term to conclude that China will be more assertive in his next five years.
Anxiety about Beijing’s next moves was heightened when China unveiled a mammoth 140-meter “magic island maker” vessel, capable of dredging some 6,000 cubic meters of sand an hour to fashion new islands, just as Trump was preparing to begin his Asia trip.
In June, Beijing let Vietnam know in no uncertain terms that China planned to keep pursuing its claims. Beijing put sufficient pressure on Hanoi to persuade Vietnamese officials to terminate exploration activity by Repsol, a Spanish oil company, which lay within both Vietnam’s continental shelf and Beijing’s so-called “nine-dash line” claim, which includes much of the South China Sea.
In another sign that China plans to keep pressing its claims, the Philippine government in August jettisoned plans to build several huts on a sandbar about 4km off Philippine-controlled Thitu Island after Chinese patrol boats ordered construction halted. The huts were intended to shelter Filipino fishermen from storms.
During a Southeast Asian regional security forum in August, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that China completed its reclamation work in the South China Sea in 2015. But his comments seem to have referred mainly to the Spratly grouping. Reclamation activities have continued around two of the Paracel Islands, according to satellite pictures published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In the absence of a strong pushback from the U.S. and its Southeast Asian neighbors, some analysts expect China to keep pushing ahead in the South China Sea. The reclamation of Scarborough Shoal, off the Philippines, is one obvious potential target, but this would set off alarm bells in Manila and likely unravel Beijing’s rapprochement with Duterte.
China could also declare baselines around its so-called “Four Sha” claim — a possible alternative to the nine-dash line that includes the Pratas Islands, the Spratlys, the Paracels and an area known as Macclesfield Bank — and treat the islands as a single unit. Chinese Foreign Ministry officials reportedly described the Four Sha claim to U.S. State Department officials in August, suggesting that Beijing was reformulating its nine-dash line claims, but not backing away from its overall claims in the South China Sea. If China declares the Four Sha baselines, it could declare an Air Defense Identification Zone soon after.
Ely Ratner, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank, has argued that standing up to Beijing in the South China Sea would require substantially increased U.S. assistance to bolster the militaries of China’s neighbors. But there are no signs of interest within the Trump administration, or support among governments in Southeast Asia, for Washington to initiate a more forceful military response to future assertive steps by China.
But unless the distracted Trump administration and its Asian friends find ways to challenge Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, it is hard to imagine that China’s increasingly capable military will not have turned the sea into a Chinese lake within the next decade or two.
Murray Hiebert is a senior associate in the Southeast Asia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.