SINGAPORE -- China has long bristled at the U.S. Navy’s “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea, which challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed waters. So when Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior colonel in the Chinese army, found himself with a chance to complain about them directly to U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently, he took it.
The U.S. operations are a “violation of the law of the People's Republic of China, of territorial waters,” Zhao told Mattis during a conference in Singapore on June 2.
Mattis defended the naval operations by citing a 2016 international tribunal decision that dismissed China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim to much of the sea. The ruling said China’s claims contravened the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
But Mattis was on shaky ground, since the U.S. has never ratified UNCLOS thanks to opposition from conservative lawmakers who see it as limiting American sovereignty. This failure undermines U.S. criticism of China over rulings based on the convention.
The uneven aspects of American foreign policy have left South China Sea claimants questioning the reliability of the U.S. as a partner.
“Inconsistency [in U.S. foreign policy] is what the regional powers are concerned about,” said Huong Le Thu, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been outspoken in questioning whether the U.S. -- a treaty partner of the Philippines -- would defend the country if there were a showdown with China over the disputed waterway.
“Can I rely on America and drop the first bomb when we attack?” he said to media on June 5.
Former President Barack Obama’s plan for an “Asia Pivot” was meant to shift the focus of American foreign policy to the Asia-Pacific region, home to the world's most dynamic major economies and, in China, an increasingly wealthy and assertive rival to the U.S.
But while Obama led the way in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country regional trade deal that excluded China, his administration failed to curb China's advances in the South China Sea, which accelerated after President Xi Jinping took power in late 2012.
President Donald Trump's rhetoric is a lot blunter than his predecessor's, though much of his ire has been directed at allies rather than rivals. During the June 8-9 Group of Seven summit in Canada, Trump angered his counterparts by saying Russia should be readmitted to the group. He labelled Justin Trudeau "dishonest and weak" after the Canadian prime minister vowed to respond to any U.S. tariffs with tariffs of his own. Trump also rescinded his endorsement of the G-7 summit statement.
Trump’s inconsistency -- alienating and insulting America’s closest allies while heaping praise on the increasingly authoritarian Xi -- has intensified doubts about overall U.S. strategy. Trump's offer to suspend U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea following his June 12 meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Un -- a major concession if it happens -- appeared to unsettle America's regional allies.
At the same time, China is using its wealth and industrial might to draw Asian countries into its economic orbit -- including some of the countries with which it has territorial disputes.
Asked on June 2 if American protectionism could help China in its one of its alleged “strategic aims” -- namely “to separate the United States from its allies and partners” -- Mattis conceded that “certainly, we have had some unusual approaches -- I'll be candid with you, some unusual approaches to how we deal with these issues.”
According to Princeton University's Aaron Friedberg, author of a new report on U.S.-China policy, the U.S. “needs to step up diplomatic and military efforts to maintain a balance of power.”
Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that the U.S. needs to rethink its South China Sea policies.
“The U.S. and the Southeast Asian claimants haven't lost yet, and it's not too late to protect their rights despite Chinese bullying, but the current U.S. policy isn't up to the challenge," he said.