Trump should get tough in the South China Sea
Smart diplomacy could produce stronger, more self-reliant Asian allies
When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump addresses the issue of the South China Sea, he will be starting from where incumbent President Barack Obama left off: criticism of Chinese militarization of the area and violations of international law, and U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations through the contested waters.
Trump has taken a clear position on the South China Sea. He feels personally insulted by what China is doing there and has hinted he could use trade as a bargaining chip to pressure Beijing to curtail its advance, raising the possibility of economic sanctions or other retaliation.
He wants to consult Japan and other Asian countries as their economies depend on trade that transits the sea. He also wants these countries to bear more of the defense burden against China. Trump does not rule out the use of U.S. military force in the South China Sea but rightly says that he does not plan to publicly reveal his military strategy.
"A strong military presence will be a clear signal to China and other nations in Asia and around the world that America is back in the global leadership business," read a statement on Trump's campaign website, which also included a pledge to expand the U.S. Navy.
Freedom of navigation operations are likely to be an early friction point. China now shadows U.S. Navy vessels and airplanes in the South China Sea. It sometimes engages in threatening behavior such as dangerously close passes by fighter jets. Trump could make U.S. rules of engagement for these encounters more aggressive.
This could increase the likelihood of interactions spiraling out of control. However, China would likely be the first to back away from such interactions, leaving the U.S. Navy with greater freedom in the South China Sea.
The question is which side of Trump will dominate in the South China Sea -- the would-be strongman or the businessman. The strongman would take an aggressive stance in the South China Sea, but the businessman would become more cooperative.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is hoping Trump will allow Beijing to continue bullying other Asian nations around the South China Sea in exchange for trade, currency and investment concessions, perhaps even for Trump's property group.
Trump has already pleased China by confirming plans to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The other 11 member states invested large amounts of political capital into the agreement, so Trump's statement is a huge snub and will erode U.S. credibility. "The lack of a TPP will increase Chinese economic influence in Asia," according to Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Removing the TPP forces countries like Vietnam back into an over-dependence on China."
China, which wasn't included in the pact, will fill the void by stepping up promotion of its own regional free-trade plan, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. This grouping excludes the U.S. and would increase Chinese trade and economic influence in Southeast Asia.
China has used the strategy of territorial creep to take advantage of overly cooperative American stances in the past. If Trump makes concessions, we can expect Beijing to seek more territorial gains and continue to nudge the U.S. out of Southeast Asia economically, diplomatically and militarily.
Then-president Bill Clinton failed to challenge China's island building at Mischief Reef in 1995 and Obama couldn't stop Beijing's occupation of Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Both features are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally. These failures led U.S. allies to question its commitment to confronting China. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's dramatic rejections of the U.S. are part of a general trend in Southeast Asia to take advantage of China's checkbook diplomacy, sidelining a timid U.S.
Trump has said he would pull back troops from Asian allies if they don't increase defense spending, probably to at least 2% of gross domestic product. Japan's 1% spending notably falls well short.
Trump's threat will encourage hawks in Japan and Australia to advocate for increased defense spending and patrols in the South China Sea, and possibly even follow Trump's earlier suggestion to build nuclear weapons. This would increase pressure in the South China Sea and would be the worst of all worlds for China -- a strengthened Japan, South Korea and Australia, plus maintenance of the U.S. alliance system.
To hasten this day, Trump the strongman should show greater military, economic, and diplomatic strength. His foreign policy entourage is likely to include hawkish Congressman Randy Forbes as secretary of the navy. Forbes led efforts to pressure Obama into launching more frequent and aggressive freedom of navigation operations.
Forbes knows that a big navy counts for little if not used. The U.S. has always had a bigger navy than China, but has failed to properly deploy the force in the South China Sea to deter Beijing's expansion of territory and influence. Michael Flynn, Trump's pick for security adviser, has identified China and North Korea as top challenges. James Mattis, a leading candidate for secretary of defense, supports a larger navy and has backed a stronger stand against Chinese bullying. Michael Pillsbury, who is notoriously tough on China, has been advising Trump on Asia.
Trump just might achieve what now appears unachievable in Southeast Asia. His approach to foreign policy on the campaign trail shattered the Washington status quo.
Ultimately, a stronger military approach should include not only a bigger and more active U.S. Navy, but smart, tough diplomacy that leads to greater defense cooperation with stronger and more self-reliant Asian allies.
In the South China Sea, the U.S. needs Duterte to reverse course and invite the American navy to establish a permanent presence within its exclusive economic zone. The U.S. should seek defense agreements with Vietnam that include basing rights and joint patrols. The U.S. Department of Defense should declassify details on how China is intimidating commercial vessels in the South China Sea to back up the public case for standing up to Beijing.
Economically, Trump should show strength by threatening sanctions if China fails to follow July's international arbitration finding against many of Beijing's claims and activities in the South China Sea. By my calculation based on earlier disputes with the U.S., the Philippines could claim $177 billion from China for rent and damages to ocean ecosystems. Washington should encourage Manila and other South China Sea claimants to sue.
Diplomatically, Trump should push for Senate ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the treaty under which Manila pursued its arbitration case. Trump should encourage the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to suspend China as a dialogue partner and remove the ability of Cambodia, a Chinese client state, to block consensus decisions.
The U.S. should try to revive its old multilateral Asian defense alliance and seek joint patrols in the South China Sea with ships from Japan, Australia, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Trump's approach to the South China Sea will ultimately have to fit into a framework with his handling of other China-related issues such as North Korea, the East China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
U.S. corporations that profit in China, including Boeing and Apple, will try to soften his security policies. If Trump lets these corporate interests influence his China policy, expect a continuation of cooperative backsliding by the U.S. in the South China Sea. This would lead to a perhaps irreversible diminution of U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic power in Asia.
But all bets are off if Trump bucks the system. A newly toughened U.S. stance could roll back China's advance, restore a rules-based order in the South China Sea and bring a breath of fresh air to all of Asia.
Anders Corr is the founder of risk consultancy Corr Analytics and publisher of the Journal of Political Risk. He has previously advised the U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific.