During the 2016 presidential campaign, President Donald Trump took a hard line on China's island-building campaign in the South China Sea. In an interview last March, he said that Beijing would keep up construction thanks to perceived American weakness, "because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country." But the Trump administration has not yet conducted any demonstrations of strength (freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS) near China's man-made islands – and has turned down three Navy proposals for more missions in the region.
The administration's public stance has remained constant. On Tuesday, the administration's nominee for ambassador to Beijing – former governor of Iowa Terry Branstad – told a Senate hearing that “China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce its neighbors." And in confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that the U.S. might even deny access to existing Chinese installations.
However, in a story first reported by conservative media outlet Breitbart News and later picked up by the New York Times, the Defense Department has repeatedly denied the Navy permission to conduct FONOPS near China's island installations since Trump took office. During Barack Obama's second term, Navy destroyers conducted three of these missions within 12 nm of Chinese-occupied islands in the Spratly group; on Tuesday, the Times reported that the Pentagon turned down an equal number of FONOPS mission proposals from Pacific Command during Trump's first 100 days.
The decisions were reportedly made at the upper levels of the Defense Department and did not involve the White House. Several of Breitbart's sources suggested that the National Security Council – which has undergone significant changes in personnel and leadership over the past three months – may have played a role.
Navy FONOPS missions in the South China Sea are intended to demonstrate the right of foreign vessels to transit waters that China improperly claims as its own – claims that are not supported by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. (The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague broadly rejected China's assertion of sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea in a ruling last June; China has ignored it.)
Multiple analysts suggested that the recent prohibition on FONOPS is due to two factors: first, a shortage of deputy-level appointees in the administration's national security team, leading to delays in formulating a coherent Asia-Pacific policy; and second – perhaps most importantly – a newfound desire to avoid confrontation, now that the administration needs Beijing to apply more pressure on North Korea. Washington seeks to head off future nuclear and ballistic missile testing in the DPRK, and China is North Korea's biggest trading partner – and perhaps the only nation with enough diplomatic clout to influence Pyongyang (without resorting to force).
Trump has recently backed away from the attacks he once leveled at China on trade issues, emphasizing instead his high regard for Xi Jinping, China’s president and the head of the Communist Party of China. "He is a good man," Trump told Reuters after hosting the Chinese leader at Mar-a-Lago last month. "He is a very good man, and I got to know him very well."
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.