Trump’s South China Sea Policy Leaves U.S. Allies Perplexed—and Anxious

Trump’s South China Sea Policy Leaves U.S. Allies Perplexed—and Anxious
A U.S. Navy F-18 fighter jet lands on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson following a patrol in the South China Sea, March 3, 2017 (AP photo by Bullit Marquez).

On June 21, the United States and China held their first-ever Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in Washington. The dialogue, co-chaired on the American side by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, is a new iteration of engagement that evolved from the April meeting between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at Mar-a-Lago. Along with other newly created discussions on trade and law enforcement issues, the dialogue is aimed at narrowing the focus of the former U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which met annually during the Obama administration.

Unfortunately, when it comes to articulating a comprehensive policy to one of the thorniest issues in U.S.-China relations—the South China Sea territorial disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors—the Trump administration remains unclear and uncoordinated. After the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, Tillerson noted that he and Mattis exchanged “frank views” on the issue with their Chinese counterparts, State Councilor Yang Jiechi and People’s Liberation Army Chief of Joint Staff Fang Fenghui. Tillerson also indicated U.S. opposition to Beijing’s militarization of reclaimed reefs in the area and called on it to adhere to international law.

But while that language may reassure some, it was followed by Tillerson’s peculiar reference to China’s supposed commitment “to resolve their disputes peacefully and in accordance with recognized principles of international law, including the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Beijing has shown no such deference or respect for international law, and Tillerson’s language parroted that long used by Chinese officials.

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