Donald Trump, North Korea and the South China Sea

According to a report by the New York Times yesterday, allies of the United States in Southeast Asia are growing concerned over the Trump administration’s unwillingness to counter growing Chinese influence and aggression in the region. The White House, whose primary concern in the region is North Korea and its growing nuclear capabilities, has so far allowed Chinese aggression in the South China Sea to go unchecked.

The Trump Administration has suspended the military patrols near islands and reefs claimed by the Chinese. It is a break in the strategy that was employed by the Obama Administration. In mid-February, the Pentagon denied a request from the Navy to sail within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed islands as part of the Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOPS).

Observers point out that it is likely that the Trump Administration has cancelled these military patrols in order to avoid raising tensions with the Chinese.Trump is hoping to work with China in order to find a solution for the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program.

Mike Chinoy, a non-resident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s US China Institute summed up the concerns of other countries in Southeast Asia when he told CNN:

“Countries in Asia that have not wanted a US-China clash but have wanted substantial American presence to counterbalance the growing clout of China are going to calculate that they can’t count on the U.S. in the way they did before.”

This is a huge concern for observers due to the fact that the United States may damage relationships with countries in the region that have been longtime allies, such as Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.

There have been disputes in Southeast Asia over the South China Sea for decades, but tensions exploded in early 2014. It was revealed that the Chinese were building artificial islands in the center of the Spratly Islands, a highly contested area of islands in which China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia have all claimed sovereignty over. The graphic below depicts the claims that each of these countries have made in the South China Sea.

(Image by CIA/NASA/ China Maritime Safety Administration)

The picture below shows Chinese dredger ships pouring sediment into the sea during the creation of Mischief Reef in 2015.

(Image by DigitalGlobe, via CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)

Observers are concerned over the fact that the Chinese are building at least three airstrips, two of them being long enough to safely land bomber aircrafts. The U.S. has also spotted mobile artillery and military buildings on these islands, which is a security concern to the other countries that are scattered in the surrounding islands.

In response to the Chinese buildup in the Spratly Islands, the U.S. conducted six freedom of navigation operations under the Obama Administration. These operations were conducted due to the military buildup in the islands, which has included fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles. The Obama Administration was upset over the Chinese military buildup in the islands due to the fact that Chinese president, Xi Jinping, promised during a 2015 trip to Washington, DC that China would not “militarize” the islands.

More recently, commercial satellites have spotted an increased amount of military aircraft in China’s disputed islands. One of these aircraft, the KJ-500, is a spy plane with large radar capabilities. In addition to the military aircraft, the Chinese have also sent in a 12,000 ton coast guard ship to patrol the islands in order to “protect China’s maritime rights,” according to Beijing.

As a response to these recent developments, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of U.S. action in the South China Sea. Just this past Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to President Trump urging for action to be taken in the South China Sea. The letter, which was signed by Republicans and Democrats in the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee said:

“We therefore urge your administration to take necessary steps to routinely exercise freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, which is critical to U.S. national security interests and to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Observers will be closely watching to see how the U.S. handles rising tensions in the South China Sea. It seems that Trump will either continue to avoid escalation with the Chinese by avoiding freedom of navigation operations while he tries to find a solution to the issue of North Korea, or give in to the pressure of other countries in the region and apply some pressure on the Chinese.

Daniel Alonso is the founder and contributor of Politicsay. Daniel graduated from Florida International University with a double major in Political Science and International Relations, as well as a certificate in National Security Studies. Daniel focuses on American Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and Human Rights Issues.