With N. Korea front-and-center on Trump trip, will South China Sea take back seat?

Whether and how President Trump will discuss China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea remains an open question. The issue now appears to be a secondary US priority – but a pillar of Beijing's plan for greater influence.

Carlos Barria/Reuters/File
President Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping during an April visit to Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla. The two leaders are scheduled to meet again this week during Mr. Trump's tour of Asia.

President Trump is expected to have a packed agenda when he arrives in China on Wednesday. In between a tour of the Forbidden City and an inspection of troops, he could announce billions of dollars in new deals for American companies and try to convince Chinese President Xi Jinping to put more pressure on North Korea. 

Yet whether and how Mr. Trump brings up China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, an important arena for its bid for regional dominance, remains an open question. The issue appears to be a secondary priority for his administration at a time when American allies in the region are deeply worried about a rising China and what, if anything, the United States will do to help keep it in check in the era of “America First.”

There’s little doubt that China would prefer to have the US out of the South China Sea altogether, as it looks to exert more influence over the Asia-Pacific region. If Mr. Xi had his way, the issue likely wouldn’t come up at all during Trump’s visit, especially amid new reports of China having undertaken more construction and land reclamation in the disputed waterway.

With the US focused on North Korea – and looking for Beijing’s help – China has quietly continued transforming what were once seven barren reefs and atolls into island fortresses, complete with military-grade runways, radar facilities, and anti-missile systems.

And it looks like there’s more to come. Some analysts expect China to soon send its first deployment jet fighters to the Spratly Islands. Meanwhile, on Friday, China unveiled a new dredger, described by its designers as a “magic island-maker.” At 460-feet long, it’s the biggest ship of its kind in Asia – making it all the more likely to renew fears about Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

“China didn't build these islands to simply use them for tourism or for lighthouses,” says Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “China built them as military outposts, and so it really is a matter of time before we actually see military assets operating out of them.”

Watching and waiting

That such an outcome appears not only likely but perhaps even inevitable, has China’s neighbors in the region increasingly on edge. Their worries have been exacerbated by the lingering uncertainty over US policy under Trump, Ms. Glaser says. US allies and others will surely pay close attention to Trump’s speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam on Friday to see if he reaffirms American military commitment to the region.

But although Trump is expected to use the speech to call for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region, it’s uncertain what he will say about American engagement in Asia. Trump's five-nation, 12-day trip gives him the opportunity to clarify his long-term vision for the US in one of the fastest-growing, most dynamic regions of the world – one that largely revolves around the South China Sea.

An employee makes hand-held US flags at a textile factory in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, China, Nov. 6. President Trump arrives for his visit to China on Nov. 8.

“The problem is we have no idea what President Trump’s South China Sea policy will be moving forward,” says Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University in China. “We have to wait and see.”

In the meantime, countries in the region have been hedging their bets while trying to appease a far more powerful China. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has stopped joint patrols with the US in the South China Sea and toned down his country's criticism of China’s territorial claims. Then there’s Vietnam, which, after emerging over the summer as one of the most vocal opponents of China’s maritime activities, has recently agreed to manage its disputes with China through friendly talks.

“Countries are quite worried about aligning themselves too closely with a United States that may not have the staying power that they want,” Glaser says. “But they all want a counterbalance to China. Every country is concerned about being vulnerable to Chinese coercion and pressure.”

Slow but steady?

In Xi’s vision of national rejuvenation, analysts say, China is destined to replace the US as the preeminent power in Asia. That Beijing has declared the South China Sea a sovereign “core interest” hints at Xi’s strategic priorities. In his opening address at the Communist Party congress last month, Xi called the building of artificial islands in the waterway a highlight of his first five-year term as China’s leader.

“Construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea has seen steady progress,” he said near the start of his report, leaving unclear when the construction will end.

Zhang Baohui, a professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, says in an email that for now, Xi is unlikely to risk inflaming tensions in the South China Sea. After emerging from the congress as China’s most powerful leader in decades, he appears content with pursuing a quiet buildup while restoring his county to what he considers its rightful place as a global power. 

“It is quite obvious that Xi’s real love is to build Chinese global leadership,” Dr. Zhang says. “Soft power and things like ‘One Belt, One Road’ are far more important for China than taking additional actions in the South China Sea,” he says, referring to China’s initiative to build roads, railways, and other infrastructure projects around the globe.

While China says it doesn’t plan to restrict access to the South China Sea – which is rich in natural resources and carries $3.4 trillion in annual trade – it claims almost all of it as sovereign territory. Beijing has refused multilateral negotiations over overlapping territorial claims and ignored a landmark ruling by an international tribunal last year that rejected the legality of its claims within the so-called “nine-dash line.”

In response to China’s island building and militarization, the US Navy has continued the Obama-era policy of conducting regular freedom-of-navigation operations through the South China Sea. Still, many wonder whether Trump is willing to do more at a time when he is seeking Xi's help to rein in a nuclear-armed North Korea.

“Trump has been less outspoken on the South China Sea issue than Obama for different reasons, both his lack of interest in US primacy here and his need for China’s help on other issues,” Zhang says. “To enlist Xi’s help on the North Korean issue, Trump may choose not to discuss the South China Sea in Beijing.”

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