Like his predecessor, Barrack Obama, who initiated America’s pivot to Asia, Donald Trump has no strategy for dealing with the series of China’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea.
Since 2012, China has first occupied reefs and islands in the Sea.
Then it has built facilities ranging from runways for military aircraft to deep harbours for warships, on them.
America’s navy says that China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in scenarios short of war with the US.
It is hard to say why Trump shows little interest in countering China’s military activities in the South China Sea.
Significantly, about one third of global shipping passes through the sea annually.
Given Trumps’s political emphasis on trade, it is surprising that he shows no inclination to uphold the international law which aims to preserve maritime freedom and security in the Sea.
Could it be because a mere 14% of America’s maritime trade passed through the Sea in 2016 - compared to over 64% of China, and nearly 42% of Japan?
Is it because Trump attaches greater importance to blunting China’s technological prowess than to ensuring freedom of navigation in international waters?
Another explanation could be that Trump does not in principle oppose the redrawing of state borders by force.
He thinks that Crimea, which Russia severed from Ukraine in 2014, is Russian because ‘everyone there speaks Russian’. (What would happen if he extended the unfortunate logic of this argument to all Southeast Asian countries, due to the majority of Chinese speakers in the region?)
Evidently, the world now has an American president who couldn’t care less about the maintenance of international law.
On second thoughts, perhaps that is not so surprising, since he dislikes international institutions and has torn up international agreements.
In Asia, Trump has focused on two things: first, the trade imbalances Asian countries have with the US, and second, putting pressure on Asian allies to pay more for their own defence.
Even if they do oblige him -- what can they do if their defence expenditure is not able to match China’s $175 billion?
And, what if China’s territorial encroachments threaten their sovereignty and exacerbate insecurity in the South China Sea?
This is where international law -- and the US' determination to stand by it – assumes great importance.
And this, in turn, is precisely because China contemptuously asserts its ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the South China Sea and dismisses calls for maritime freedom there.
China’s Foreign Ministry recently accused some ‘external forces’ of trying ‘to muddy’ the Sea by ‘hyping up the non-existent proposition that navigation freedom and security is somewhat affected.’
Trump’s administration finds it hard to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by China. Unfortunately, Trump’s administration also speaks in many voices – while China’s stance remains consistent.
When Defense Secretary John Mattis threatened to take down China’s military installations in the South China Sea, President Xi Jinping referred to “history”, and declared that China would not surrender ‘even one inch’ of territory that ‘its ancestors’ left behind.
There was no response from the Trump administration.
The US Does Not Seem Minded
The US does not seem minded to counter China’s territorial redrawing – let alone to reverse the fait accompli that its redrawing has now become.
Like China, the US does not want war.
Neither a series of American naval drills with friendly Asian countries nor the exclusion of China from the 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise seems to be a deterrent to China.
China’s response is only to condemn the ‘very unconstructive’ stance of the US.
China also appears satisfied that its neighbours have shifted their priorities from geopolitics to trade and investment.
All that China sees is America’s anxiety and frustration over the stable conditions that the former has created in the South China Sea area through good neighbourly ties.
Blaming the US for intensifying trade disputes, it alleges that Beijing-Washington military exchanges have nearly stagnated this year.
China is confident that US naval patrols near its territories only reveal Washington’s anxieties about it.
Meanwhile America’s allies are concerned about its reliability in warding off China.
Never Smooth Sailing
But, achieving a balance of power in the South China Sea was never going to be smooth sailing.
By claiming most of the Sea as its sovereign territory and grabbing land to back that claim, Beijing can subsequently allege that it is the US which is building up economic and political influence beyond its state borders and infringing upon China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.
At another level, economics and strategy are linked. Beijing knows that China’s growing military power rests on its economic progress.
And China’s Belt and Road Initiative has shown how trade and investment can promote its strategic aims.
That raises the question on why the US, Japan and South Korea and Australia – and the European Union, which boasts one of the world’s largest economies – have not invested comparable amounts in ASEAN countries to counter China’s economic clout.
Countering China's Economic Clout
Meanwhile, India, China’s main rival in Asia, lags at least three decades behind China economically.
India, therefore, lacks the wherewithal to make huge investments in foreign countries or to modernise its armed forces.
In 2017, India’s defence budget was $63.9bil, while China’s defence budget was $228bil.
The US is the only country which far surpasses China economically and in its defence budget. Its defence spending was $610bil in 2017.
Trump has shown no sign of turning America’s economic and military strengths to counter China in constructive ways.
Like Obama, Trump seems at a loss on how to manage China in Southeast Asia.
China started its economic and military advancement in the region under Obama – and has continued, unchecked, since Trump became president.
Trump must devise an effective strategy to achieve a balance of power in Southeast Asia.
After all, the US has its primacy in Asia – and the stability and prosperity of the region - to preserve.