U.S. President Donald Trump has earned a reputation over his year in office as someone who goes easy on China. He makes the odd barb such as his accusation last week that China was shipping oil to his nemesis North Korea, but China usually keeps quiet about its North Korea ties. Then Trump goes away.
Trump lacks a steadfast, multi-layered Asia policy like that of his predecessor Barack Obama from 2011 to 2016. You might say that lack of focus on Asia (with the exception of North Korea) is keeping China’s widely feared maritime expansion in check. Here’s how that works:
Officials in Beijing always said Obama’s policy, known as a “pivot to Asia,” was aimed at squelching Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. China claims about 90% of the sea that’s rich in fisheries and fuel resources. It uses its lead in technology plus military superiority to vie for maritime sovereignty with five regional governments. Obama’s specific pivots, for example joint military training with the Philippines and agreement to resume arms sales to Vietnam, gave smaller countries a tool to resist Chinese maritime expansion. Trump isn’t going there, despite hopes in other Asian countries that would rather he keep China in check.
No need for self-defense
Lack of direct antagonism from Washington gives Beijing less of a reason to reclaim more land for expansion among the South China Sea’s roughly 500 tiny islets after landfilling some 3,000 acres to date, some analysts suspect. If Washington were still doing naval exercises with rival maritime claimants, selling stacks of arms or doing more of its own regular, high-profile “freedom of navigation” exercises in the sea, China would feel it must defend itself, says Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Self-defense might mean more landfill, more military installations and more fighter jet deployments — the usual source of complaints among the Southeast Asian stakeholders.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam claim all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that’s valued also for marine shipping lanes. Taiwan claims nearly the whole sea. They all overlap waters that China calls its own.
Cycle of restraint
China may be holding back to ensure Trump also holds back, creating a cycle of restraint. A bold move such as Chinese construction at a shoal that’s hotly disputed by the Philippines “would certainly energize China critics in the U.S. to increase U.S. Navy activity in the region,” says Carl Baker, director of programs with the think tank Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.
“The Chinese are very clever,” says Termsak Chalermpalanupap, fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “They don’t do anything that would give the Americans any new openings to intervene.”
Still a Sino-U.S. race
But restraint doesn’t mean China is finished consolidating power in the sea. The island province of Hainan will launch 10 satellites over the waters from 2019 through 2021, state-run China Daily says. That’s the latest case of using technology to know what other countries are doing and, if needed someday, send them away. It deployed military aircraft to the sea in 2017, per media reports such as this one.
China sees the United States as a “competitor” over the long term and assumes that status will outlast the terms of Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, says Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. So China will expand at sea as needed to ensure the the United States can’t take it out, he predicts. The U.S. Navy also has done four freedom-of-navigation missions under Trump, possibly as a bargaining chip with China on other issues, per this analysis.
“I think [Chinese officials] will look at U.S.-China relations not just in terms of Trump-Xi relations,” Huang says.