Donald Trump’s South China Sea policy doesn’t resolve contradictions – it embraces them

Robert Delaney says that the US president can trumpet ‘America first’ isolationism one day and a willingness to confront China over its maritime expansion the next, and sell both positions to his base

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 3:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 7:25pm

White House observers were too whipsawed by US President Donald Trump’s mixed signals last week over his plans to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to notice another glaring contradiction of his.

This one, delivered in a commencement address to US Naval Academy graduates, should be as troubling to Beijing as his negotiating tactics with respect to Pyongyang.

“We’re sharpening the fighting edge of everything from marine infantry squads to combat ships to deliver maximum lethal force,” Trump told the graduating class of 2018.

“The enemy has to know we have them. And we are recommitting to this fundamental truth: we are a maritime nation. And being a maritime nation, we’re surrounded by sea. We must always dominate that sea. We will always dominate the oceans.”

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Just a few weeks earlier, Trump had this very different take on the United States’ role in global security. “We more and more are not wanting to be the policemen of the world,” Trump said during a joint press conference with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in Washington.

“We’re spending tremendous amounts of money for decades policing the world, and that shouldn’t be the priority,” he added. “We want to police ourselves and we want to rebuild our country.”

From isolationism to a rousing call for projecting military power around the globe in just a few weeks, Trump’s foreign policy would seem as directionless as a compass sitting on the North Pole. He has not only stopped bothering to rationalise policy contradictions. He embraces them.

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Contradictions have become part of a strategy that transforms him and his executive branch from one-third of a government designed to function as a system of checks and balances to a strongman in the mould of his counterparts in China, Russia and North Korea.

From questions about what he knew about hush payments to a porn star to justifications for firing members of his staff over their connections to Russian officials, Trump’s contradictions have never dented support from his base.

On the international front, his tough talk – untethered to a coherent policy foundation – has worked in his favour.

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Since Trump began threatening to launch an all-out trade war, Beijing has been offering more in the way of specific pledges to narrow its trade surplus with the US and open its markets than at any time since China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001.

China demands diplomacy, but only respects force. While Trump may not be a long-term strategist, he understands this about the country’s government because he is himself an authoritarian, self-actualised as the strongman he has always wanted to be, running the world’s most powerful nation as he ran his real estate empire.

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And so the “we own the seas” declaration last week at Annapolis was written as much for the Chinese Navy as it was for newly minted American ensigns and deputy lieutenants.

China’s intentions in the South China Sea appear to be evolving. Trump sees this, or at least his advisers do

The US naval domination of the Pacific has been obvious since the end of the second world war. No one challenged American military might in the region because it served to keep key waterways, including the South China Sea, open for commerce.

Because of this, Washington never needed to brag about its “fighting edge”.

But Beijing is also guilty of contradictions.

Less than a year ago, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said China’s development of structures on islands in the South China Sea “has nothing to do with militarisation". Yet earlier this month, several Chinese bombers, including the H-6K, its most advanced, conducted take-off and landing training on an island in the area.

Beijing has no interest in assuming the post-war role America’s military has played. They have no doubt learned valuable lessons from the burdens Washington has shouldered as a result of this role.

However, China’s intentions in the South China Sea appear to be evolving.

Trump sees this, or at least his advisers do. In response, the US leader reverts to the kind of rhetoric that appears to work best for him.

Robert Delaney is the Post's US bureau chief, based in New York