Trump Likely To Get Tough in South China Sea Maritime Dispute

An image depicting the disputed territory of the South China Sea.

Image credit: Shutterstock

With the surprising election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency comes an era of uncertainty in Asia and the Pacific islands.

Chinese authorities believe that outgoing President Obama’s focus on domestic matters will take the South China Sea maritime dispute out of the nation’s crosshairs, at least in the short term.

However, many people who follow U.S. policy in Asia expect Trump to make a show of force as soon as he enters office. According to Sean King, senior vice president with Park Strategies, that show might include passage of U.S. naval ships through the sea to show it is open to all countries, despite the fact that China claims ownership of the entire sea.

There is currently a lot of uncertainty in the Philippines, one of the United States’ most loyal allies in Southeast Asia. Recently, President Rodrigo Duterte visited China and said that he plans to align with China rather than the U.S.

However, shortly after Trump was elected, Duterte reassured Filipinos and other nations that he would honor treaties with the U.S., including a mutual defense treaty.

Some Philippine officials expressed concern about the two countries’ relationship.

“I think if we go by the indications of what [Trump] had evidenced during the elections, which is to project protectionism and isolationism, I think it may not be the same as before in terms of the closeness of relations between our two countries,” said former Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario. “I suspect that the focus on Asia will be less on defense and security and probably more on economic relations.”

Meanwhile, in China, there are simultaneous hopes for an easing of tensions and concerns about the future.

Chinese scholars suspect that the Obama administration will, in its last days, focus much more on domestic affairs and leave international business at its current status quo. “Before the next U.S. president comes into power, the South China Sea will be at least temporarily peaceful,” said Wu Shicun, head of the government-affiliated National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

Zhang Zhexin, a U.S. affairs expert with the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, says, “President-elect Trump is expected to play tough in the Asia Pacific region in the first half of 2017 to portray a powerful presidential image. Since the communication channels between Beijing and Trump’s team are not smooth, China will play hardball as well. As a result, the probability of a military collision will increase.”

During the campaign, many analysts believed that Trump would focus more on domestic affairs and pull away from the international arena. But now, based on commentaries by Trump’s inner circle and Randy Forbes being floated as secretary of the Navy, that’s not so clear.

“Coming out of the campaign, there was the perception that he was going to pull back and not get entangled overseas,” said Sam Crane, a professor of Chinese politics at Williams College. Instead, Crane said, Trump “is going to be as, or even more, assertive than Obama.”

Trump campaign advisers Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro said that Obama’s actions in the South China Sea were merely “token gestures” and that under Trump the Navy would be expanded to “reassure our allies that the United States remains committed in the long term to its traditional role as guarantor of the liberal order in Asia.”

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