Return To Confrontation In The South China Sea?

The brief lull in the South China Sea dispute that had held since late 2016 may be over. Beginning in May 2017, events suggest that the brief peace in the region is due to the U.S. policy confusion in the Trump Administration, rather than due to mutual understanding and the desire to solve the dispute by the claimants. With the end of the 2017 Shangri- La Dialogue on Asia-Pacific security on June 4th, the United States and China appear to engage in actions and issue statements that are setting the stage for the return to the confrontation that had existed prior to October.

Since May 2017, American actions in the South China Sea seem to have resumed previous patterns. On May 24th, the United States resumed its Freedom of Navigation and Overflight exercises. American warships and planes again began to sail close to Chinese-claimed maritime features to demonstrate America’s position on UNCLOS and American opposition to Chinese-claimed reefs. The incidents in May are the first time since October 2016 that American warships have sailed close to Chinese occupied maritime features with the intention of demonstrating American non-recognition of Chinese territorial claims.

Furthermore, American statements issued during the Shangri-La Dialogue seem to indicate the return of Obama-era policies. The American Secretary of Defence James Mattis assured U.S. allies during the dialogue that the U.S. has not forgotten its allies in the Asia-Pacific despite Trump’s seeming isolationist stance in the region. Mattis further stressed that the US views Chinese actions in the South China Sea as detrimental to regional stability and violation of international law, actions that the U.S. will oppose. Mattis also stressed that the US strongly supports the 2016 PCA ruling as the foundation for the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific, a ruling that China has spent significant resources to denounce as illegitimate. These statements are in the same tone with the statements issued by the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this year. But unlike Tillerson, Mattis’ statements are issued following American actions in the region, giving them more weight as an indicator of the Trump presidency’s policies.

The return of the US to be the Freedom of Navigation exercises and statements blaming China for upsetting peace in the region indicate that, despite Trump’s bluster, America’s Asia-Pacific policy remains relatively unchanged.  During America’s brief absence in the region, China has seized the opportunity to speed up its construction of the maritime features and attempted to assert an leadership role in the region, from the Belt and Road Initiative to seemingly trying to solve the dispute through finally cooperating on the drafting of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, although that may turn out to be non-legally binding. While China has made some strides in assertiveness in the region, the U.S. “return” to the Asia-Pacific would likely to be welcomed by the smaller actors in the region that will want to balance the regional powers against each other to prevent the South China Sea from becoming monopolized by either regional power. It may also herald the beginning of another period of diplomatic spats between the two regional powers.

Hanyu Huang