Trump’s Asia-Pacific policy takes shape

By Zhang Tengjun Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/10 18:53:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT



On July 12, 2016, the UN arbitral tribunal in the South China Sea arbitration case issued its final ruling, denying China's sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea. The decision was once seen as a fuse which would trigger tensions and even conflicts in the involved regions. Now one year later, it has become a major turning point, which made the situation in the South China Sea cool down and head in a better direction.

In the past year, significant changes have taken place in the South China Sea. China continued its dialogue with claimants and made progress in the crafting of a framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

The Philippines and Vietnam, with new leaders coming into office, have adjusted their South China Sea policies. These countries understand escalating the situation is not conducive to the interests of any party. They don't want the provocation of some countries to lead the region into conflict. The South China Sea dispute has gone back to the track of bilateral dialogue. Although the sovereignty dispute still exists, the situation there has cooled down dramatically.

Due to the uncooperative actions of its allies and partners in Southeast Asia, the US, claiming to have important national interests at stake, has become more and more directly involved in the affairs of the South China Sea. Although the US was in chaos during the 2016 presidential election, the Barack Obama administration was still trying to promote the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific strategy. The South China Sea dispute has increasingly become an issue between China and the US, which is the result of the US making waves in the waters.

After Donald Trump came to power, Obama's Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy has become a thing of the past. However, the interaction between the US and countries in the Asia-Pacific region has not diminished. This region remains the focus of the US global strategy. The Trump administration has deepened its involvement in the Asia-Pacific region since May.

At the beginning of May, the US Department of Defense announced its support of the Asia Pacific Stability Initiative, under which the US will invest $7.5 billion in the Asia-Pacific region over the next five years to upgrade military infrastructure, further conduct military exercises and deploy more troops and ships.

On May 25, the USS Dewey, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed into the waters close to the reefs off China's Nansha Islands without permission from China. This was the first freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea by the Trump administration.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June, US Defense Secretary James Mattis said the US will "continue to strengthen military capabilities in the [Asia-Pacific] region." On July 2, a US missile destroyer entered China's territorial waters off the Xisha Islands. Four days later, two US bombers flew over the disputed South China Sea.

During the first half of this year, US officials visited many countries in the Asia-Pacific region to appease allies and seek support. For the second half of the year, Trump will attend the US-ASEAN summit in the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam. This series of actions show that Trump's Asia-Pacific policies are taking shape. Their main goal is maintaining and consolidating the US dominant position in the Asia-Pacific region. Bilateral trade engagement and military cooperation are the two pillars of Trump's diplomacy with Asian countries.

Although Sino-US relations have developed well, Trump still regards China as its major competitor and challenge in the region. Competition and cooperation will be the main modes of US-China interaction in the region. Whether Trump will play the South China Sea card to help further US strategic interests is not clear at present. However, the situation in the South China Sea will not remain static.

After the South China Sea arbitration case, the claimants have pursued dialogue and consultation to solve their differences, an approach which should be promoted and continued. If all the countries work together in the same direction, the external factors will not affect peace and stability in the South China Sea. Just as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, "History will prove who is a mere visitor and who is the real host."

The author is an assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



Posted in: ASIAN REVIEW

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