Panel: Administration’s South China Sea Comments Set to Cause Friction with Beijing

January 25, 2017 8:18 PM
People's Liberation Army troops patrol an island in the South China Sea. PLA Photo
People’s Liberation Army troops patrol an island in the South China Sea. PLA Photo

The Trump Administration’s early comments on the South China Sea and Taiwan could “cause a lot of friction” between China and the United States, but other factors – including upcoming Communist Party Congress elections in China – will likely keep relations between Beijing and Washington stable in the early part of 2017.

“China wants to have a good relationship with the United States” this year because of an expected reshuffling of a number of party and government officeholders, Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Wednesday at a CSIS event on regional maritime issues. Despite that potential for shakeup, President Xi Jinping is expected to again be chosen as party secretary.

Zack Cooper, CSIS fellow, agreed that China’s behavior would be stable but “the question we don’t know the answer to is how assertive” the Trump Administration may be in its first year in office when it comes to the South and East China seas.

In the South China Sea, Cooper said the administration needed to be clear on “what are we trying to do” with continued freedom of navigation operations by the artificial island, and wondered “are they in some way a response to land reclamation?”

He said a CSIS study – due to be published this spring – found that in nine cases of the “maritime use of non-kinetic warfare,” China did not always clearly get its way after pressuring neighbors on territorial claims. Scarborough Shoals and the continuing reclamation projects were the two exceptions.

Cooper admitted he was surprised at “how restrained the Chinese media has been on South China Sea issues” in recent months leading up to the administration change in Washington.

Glaser added that countries that border the South China Sea would wonder how engaged the Trump Administration would be in the region. If they sense a pullback by the United States, these nations would likely hedge their bets by drawing closer to China.

China has been relatively quiet at the same time in its disputes with Japan in the East China Sea, Cooper said. One reason is not wanting to push Japan and the United States closer together at a time when then-candidate Donald Trump questioned the value of American alliances with Japan and South Korea, as well as NATO.

Glaser noted “Japan is doing a lot to increase deterrence,” with plans to add eight coast guard vessels to the area and 200 law enforcement officers. Tokyo is also improving port facilities for expanded operations.

“Japanese moves in the short term are going to be stabilizing” for the region, Cooper agreed.

Despite all the reasons to believe the East and South China seas may be stable in the coming months, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson sent out a “lot of conflicting signals” about what the United States would do if China militarized the artificial islands it claims, Glaser said.

During his Jan. 11 confirmation hearing, Tillerson said the U.S. could block access to China’s artificial holdings.

“Denying access [to the Chinese], then you have the potential for a direct clash,” she added. She said she expected Beijing to continue reclamation projects in the South China Sea. While not declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone over them, it was “only a matter of time before they begin deploying aircraft” to the reclaimed reefs.

Also at the event, Michael Green, CSIS senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair, discussed the impact of Trump’s unprecedented early dialogue with Taiwan. He said Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush made comments about Taiwan shortly after taking office that riled the Chinese, but those comments were “not a declarative policy” and the two administrations worked cooperatively with Beijing on a number of issues through their two terms in office. Trump, in comparison, had a telephone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in early December that stands in stark comparison to previous U.S. “One China”policy.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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