ISSN 2330-717X

South China Sea Trade-Off Between US And China Presidents? – Analysis


By Dr Subhash Kaila*

Reviewing the developments in the wake of the first meeting in April 2017 between US President Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping it seemingly appears on analysis that the United States has made a trade-off with China on the South China Sea in exchange for Chinese pressures on North Korea to roll back its nuclear weapons program.

Such transactional deals by the United States with China whose end results are dubious going by China’s propensity to renege on deals, places the United States perceptively in the image of a declining Superpower unable to stand-up and checkmate China. Pointed out in an earlier paper of mine was the reality that China would never tame North Korea’s nuclear project as it provides with strong leverages to China against the United States. Then, why a perceptional trade-off by the United States with China?

United States official pronouncements preceding the Summit were notable on the South China Sea conflict escalation by China as they carried dire warnings in assertions right from the US President, to US Secretary of State and the US Defence Secretary. It extended to hints of even military interventions by the United States to stop Chinese construction of artificial islands for military use in this maritime expanse. The United States also asserted that it could not recognise artificial islands constructed by China as sovereign Chinese territory.

There were also reports that indicated that the United States would increase the size and intensity of US Navy Freedom of Navigation Patrols to challenge China’s illegal claims of sovereignty in the seas around these Chinese artificially constructed islands.

Following the US Florida meet between US President Trump and Chinese President Xi there has been a deafening silence from Washington on China’s provocative brinkmanship and aggressive activities against Vietnam and the Philippines. Nor have any reports emanated suggesting an increase in US Navy FONOPS patrols in the South China Sea.

Such a deafening silence in the otherwise strident rhetoric that emanated from Washington preceding the April 2017 Summit leads to two major analytical conclusions. The first conclusion would suggest that the United States after the first flush of anti-China rhetoric, common with all new incoming US Administrations, the rhetorical campaign gives way to a watering down under strong pressures from the US China lobby, more specifically, US business giants with massive stakes in the China trade.

It would therefore follow from the above that the United States would accept the status-quo in the South China Sea in favor of China’s domination.

The second conclusion that strikes the mind is that US President Trump more in a transactional trade-off has bartered US silence on South China Sea conflict escalation by China for some assurances from China that it would prevail on North Korea to limit its nuclear weapons project. There are no other plausible reasons for the United States going silent on the South China Sea conflict escalation by China.

On both counts as enumerated above the United States stands to lose geopolitically in terms of its global and regional images as the nett provider of security in the Asia Pacific region against a militaristic China. By accepting the status-quo, the United States appears as powerless against Chinese aggressive instincts which if not checked now could lead to greater Chinese hegemonistic actions. On the second count, the United States entering into a tactical transactional trade-off with China on the South China Sea suffers from the same image-dents in Asia Pacific. On both counts, the United States appears to project a picture of a Superpower on the decline.

Can the United States afford such image-dents in what emerges as a repetition of United States traditional China Hedging Strategy and a proclivity for Risk Aversion when it comes to face-off China? Global and regional expectations from the advent of the Trump Administration were far more in that the United States would not hesitate in checkmating China.

One is already witnessing that after US President Trump’s cancelling the TPP project of former President Obama, the Asian nations tended to gravitate towards China’s orbit. The Trump Administrations decision to participate in China’s OBOR Summit as a last minute decision even at much lower level of representation reflects poorly on the United States in that no substantial strategic interests of the United States are served by OBOR. In fact China’s OBOR is aimed at strategic diminution of the United States.

In conclusion, all that can be said is that viewing this trend of the United States is that should the United States persist in expedient transactional deals with China it certainly endangers United States embedment in Asia, something that China wishes for ardently.

*Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at [email protected]

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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