From November 3-14, 2017, US President Donald Trump swung through five Asian countries on the first Asia-Pacific trip of his presidency, including attending the 2017 APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) CEO Summit in Vietnam and the 50th ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Anniversary in Manila. This was his longest and, perhaps, most important overseas visit of the first year of his presidency.
His visit generates discussions on various hot topics, including the North Korean nuclear crisis, US-China relations, US economic engagement in the Asia-Pacific, the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept, and the US perception of China’s 19th National Party Congress. Interestingly, the South China Sea, which had been predicted by many to be one of the hot issues to be discussed at the ASEAN serial summits, seemed to draw much less attention than expected.
What implications will Trump’s visit to the Asia-Pacific have on China-US relations in the context of the South China Sea? What message could be sensed for US’ future policy on the South China Sea?
Two important points are worth noting with regards to Trump’s visit and the South China Sea issue. First, little of the visit’s focused on the South China Sea. Although Chinese President Xi Jinping had mentioned China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea in his 19th Party Congress report as a domestic issue that didn’t pertain to external actors, President Trump did not offer any pushback. Second, the South China Sea issue has to a certain extent faded from the regional headlines, which might provide a useful opening for China to maintain and strengthen relationships and strategic stability in the South China Sea region.
The discourse of the South China Sea seems to come back to the China-ASEAN arena. The statement made by Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines as ASEAN Chair in 2017, listed three major threats faced by ASEAN: terrorism, piracy and maritime armed robbery, and illegal drug trafficking. The South China Sea issue was not raised. The Party Secretary of Vietnam, Tran Dai Quang, made a statement that Vietnam is exploring settling its maritime disputes through peaceful negotiation. Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore as the coordinator of China-ASEAN Dialogue and ASEAN Chair 2018, praised the step taken by ASEAN and China to start the Code of Conduct text negotiation.
In the statement of the ASEAN 50th summit, all parties reaffirmed the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the South China Sea, and stressed the improved relations between ASEAN and China. China and the Philippines in their Joint Statement noted that the situation in the South China Sea has become generally more stable as a result of joint cooperative efforts between China, the Philippines, and other ASEAN member states, and agreed to strengthen maritime cooperation in areas such as marine environmental protection, disaster risk reduction, and possible cooperation in marine scientific research.
The Chairman’s Statement of the 20th ASEAN-China Summit reiterated the commitment to the full and effective implementation of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and adopted the Leaders’ Declaration on a Decade of Coastal and Marine Environmental Protection in the South China Sea, which is reflective of the shared commitment to implement the DOC and desire to transform the South China Sea into a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity. China and ASEAN have agreed to start negotiations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea in an effort to ease regional tensions over territorial disputes in the area.
All these messages highlight the importance of China and ASEAN in managing the South China Sea in the future. Then, beyond freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, what additional role can the US play to reassure its regional allies and partners of its resolution and long-term staying power in the region?
President Trump offered to mediate between claimants to the South China Sea when meeting with Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang. Local leaders cautiously responded to his offer. President Quang said Vietnam believed in handling disputes on the South China Sea through peaceful negotiations and on the basis of international law. President Duterte said at a business conference: “We have to be friends, the other hotheads would like us to confront China and the rest of the world on so many issues … The South China Sea is better left untouched, nobody can afford to go to war. It can ill-afford a violent confrontation.”
It is unclear that the US President’s remarks signal a more proactive role of the US in finding a solution in the South China Sea. The outlines of the Trump administration’s South China Sea policy are gradually emerging with two indicators. First, FONOPs will continue without change. However, in contrast to the Obama administration, which had a policy of publicizing its FONOPs starting in 2015, the Trump administration will not officially announce these operations. Second, the US is loath to see ASEAN countries getting too close to China and, by stoking tensions there, it may impress its allies and partners with its awesome military presence while pressing China to go along with its policy on the North Korean nuclear issue.
During his tour, Trump and his team have repeatedly used the term “Indo-Pacific” instead of “Asia-Pacific” for the region, which some see as an effort to undermine China’s role in this region. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on October 18 on “Defining Our Relationship with India for the Next Century,” highlighted the role of India and frequently used the term of “Indo-Pacific.” US State Department officials at some occasions have attempted to downplay the strategic goal of “Indo-Pacific” and denied that this concept aims to contain China. Many DC based analysts do share the view that US “Quad” plan with India, Japan, and Australia offers options for Asian countries beyond China.
President Trump’s visit to the Asia-Pacific seems to send a message that the South China Sea issue is no longer the driving issue in US-China relations as it has been since 2010 when then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listed the South China Sea as a US national interest at the East Asia Summit in Hanoi. However, Trump’s unpredictable comments, such as his offer to mediate these disputes, and the strategic goal behind the concept of Indo-Pacific, might unnerve allies who look for a strong show of commitment from the US President to defend their interests.
The South China Sea issue will not just simply go away in China-US bilateral relations, even though it may not remain as the most crucial factor for now. It is crucial for China and the US to establish an effective and integrated mechanism to manage potential crises in the South China sea. Currently, there are mechanisms in place, such as notification of major military activities as well as a military hotline and rules of behavior for the safety of air and maritime encounters. However, those mechanisms are all voluntary and non-binding. The distinct uncertainty is the frequent US intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) activities which are “not unplanned, unintentional, or even unexpected.”
In addition to ISR, US FONOPs in the South China Sea, many of which had attempted to challenge China’s sovereignty claims, will only serve to trigger China to further its military deployment on South China Sea features. This vicious cycle probably will give rise to miscalculations, contingencies, and even conflict at sea. Therefore, in line with establishing “a New Model of New International Relationships,” the two sides should seek to establish an integrated mechanism, involving various tracks such as diplomacy, civilian forces, military — just to name a few — so as to address these potential problems and crises effectively.
This article originally appeared in IPP Review.