On Monday, President Donald Trump formally ended the United States' participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TPP would have lowered barriers to trade between the U.S. and 11 other nations around the Pacific Rim, and it would have been the largest regional trade agreement in history. Proponents also billed it as a counterweight to ever-expanding Chinese influence in the Western Pacific.
The agreement would have lowered tariffs on a range of products, and it contained standards for intellectual property protections, labor rights and environmental protection. By reducing friction for the movement of goods between the U.S. and Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Peru and Chile, trade volumes would have risen, supporters said. Critics contended that it would lower regulatory standards by allowing corporations to sue over new laws that could damage their investments, and questioned whether it would really have an effect on the volume of trade.
TPP was the United States' main soft power initiative on the margins of the South China Sea, and had been intended to cement American ties with regional allies. Although he has withdrawn America from the treaty, President Trump has pledged to keep China from expanding and fortifying its presence on occupied land features in the region. In his confirmation hearing, Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, suggested that the administration's policy in the contested Spratly Islands would be more confrontational than in years past. "We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed," he said. Chinese state media quickly responded that the U.S. would have to "wage war" to deny access to the recently built facilities.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer confirmed on Monday that "the U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there . . . It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country," he said. Spicer did not discuss whether this principle would extend to Russian-occupied Crimean ports.
The nations most immediately affected by disputes in the South China Sea – Vietnam and the Philippines – have recently moved to negotiate directly with China, without third-party involvement. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has said that China's island-building campaign is not a primary concern for his nation, even though the islands are within its EEZ, and has downplayed an international arbitration ruling that found that China had greatly exaggerated its UNCLOS maritime claims.