On South China Sea, Trump is playing with fire

The new US president and his team are needlessly raising tensions over matters where American interests are not even clear

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 February, 2017, 1:24am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 February, 2017, 1:24am

South China Sea territorial disputes are no place for an inexperienced official to stumble into. Yet new US President Donald Trump’s administration has wasted little time in taking a position, telling Beijing that perceived infractions of international law will not be tolerated. The approach could be a way of showing support for Asian allies contesting Chinese claims of sovereignty, but it is more likely part of a strategy to pressure China on trade and investment. Just as a reversal of decades of American policy towards the one-China principle has been suggested, this would be an equally disturbing game plan; diplomacy, not threats and sabre-rattling, is the only way to deal with so sensitive a matter.

Defence Secretary James Mattis could raise the topic during his first overseas trip, which began in South Korea yesterday; he will also visit Japan. As a highly experienced US Marine general, he will be careful about what he says. But that has not been the case with Trump and fellow billionaire and just-approved Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, or White House press secretary Sean Spicer. The manner in which they have referred to the contested waters shows a lack of understanding and highlights the need for a coherent policy.

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Within days of Trump taking office, Spicer said the US would protect its interests in the South China Sea and “defend international territories from being taken over by one country”. Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing that China should be denied access to islands it had created on coral reefs and constructed military facilities on. The comments suggest the possibility the Trump administration is willing to take military action. Former president Barack Obama never made such provocative remarks; he spoke of the need to ensure freedom of navigation to protect the billions of dollars of trade that passes through the region each year, although he did order US naval vessels into the waters as a show of strength.

China has told Trump to stay out of the dispute. It has reiterated its dedication to freedom of navigation and desire for talks with nations directly involved to ensure a peaceful resolution. But the US administration has only shown a desire to be provocative; it has signalled an intention to go head to head with Beijing on a range of issues, Taiwan and trade among them.

The US has yet to articulate what interests it needs to defend and how a territorial dispute it has no part in is a factor. Whatever they may be, threats and military confrontation are not the way to handle the issue.