This article is meant to read as a follow-up to Dr. Paul Taillon’s report titled “Dangerous Seas: Strategic Developments in the South China Sea,” which can be read here.
Mounting tensions in the Korean Peninsula in recent months have caused the Trump Administration to adopt a conciliatory air with China and President Xi Jinping, underscoring their about-face stance on China following President Trump’s campaign on labeling the nation as a currency manipulator and promising to go after Beijing on trade.
In the last three months, not long after President Trump assumed office, North Korea has provocatively attempted nine missile launches on six different occasions, the most recent of which occurred last Saturday on Trump’s 100th day in office prompting him to tweet:
Tensions between the US and China have been long-simmering, coming to a head when then-President Obama allowed, albeit sparingly, for routine US Navy patrols in the South China Sea—China’s self-proclaimed territorial waters—and among the nation’s various artificial islands. In fact, six weeks ago, the US Pacific Command requested permission from US officials to sail a warship within 22 kilometres of Scarborough Shoal, which is a disputed reef in the South China Sea, claimed by both China and the Philippines. This request, however, was denied along with two other similar requests put forth by the US Navy back in February.
This deference towards Beijing echoes the Trump Administration’s acknowledgment that China will prove to be an invaluable ally in reining in Pyongyang. Now, after more than 100 days in office, there have been no US Navy ships within close proximity to any disputed islands or reefs in the South China Sea.
In past years both Trump and Tillerson have gone on record to condemn China’s actions in the South China Sea and the building of artificial, fortified islands. Just last March Trump commented in an interview with the New York Times that, “…they do that [building artificial islands] at will, because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country.”
Similarly, upon securing his position as Secretary of State, Tillerson commented that China’s island building was “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea,” and warned that the US would take action to stop the building of islands and denying China access to previously built islands.
The current North Korean missile crisis, however, has put this hardline campaign against China on hold. In fact, China continues to militarize and fortify its islands by bringing in more equipment and building bomb-proof airplane hangars. The Scarborough Shoal will prove to be the litmus test for US-China relations, as it has always been something of a red line. The Chinese have yet to build on the Shoal, and the US has warned in the past that doing so would be considered provocative.