Is Donald Trump softening his South China Sea policy to solicit Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea? That question was raised last week when the New York Times reported that the Defense Department had recently rejected three proposals for freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea.
According to the Navy’s top Pacific commander, however, three does not make a pattern—or a policy change. Reuters:
“There is nothing that has significantly changed in the last two or three months,” Admiral Scott Swift told reporters in Singapore, referring to the U.S. Navy excursions it says it conducts to ensure freedom of navigation.
“We just present the opportunities when we have a ship in the area and there’s an area of interest … They are either taken advantage of or they’re not.” […]
Swift said there has been no change in the importance the United States placed on the South China Sea issue.
“We are on track to conduct over 900 ship days of operations this year in the South China Sea,” he said.
Fair enough. But one statement may not dispel a building perception that the Trump Administration is taking it easy on Beijing. Bill Bishop put it best in his must-read Sinocism newsletter today: “Is President Trump subordinating every other issue in the U.S.-China relationship to the North Korean one, giving Beijing both more leverage than they should have as well as leeway on many other challenging and pressing issues in the relationship?”
Indeed, there are reports that the Chinese, at least initially, believed they could play Trump by extorting concessions in exchange for largely symbolic pressure against Pyongyang. According to the Japan Times, China proposed an unconventional quid pro quo ahead of last month’s Mar-a-Lago summit: China would help pressure North Korea, the offer went, if Trump fired Admiral Harry Harris, the PACOM commander whose Japanese ancestry and hardline stance on the South China Sea have long rankled Beijing:
The Chinese leadership headed by President Xi Jinping made the request, through its ambassador in the United States, to dismiss Adm. Harry Harris, known as a hard-liner on China, including with respect to the South China Sea issue, the source said.
China’s envoy to the United States, Cui Tiankai, conveyed the request to the U.S. side, to coincide with the first face-to-face, two-day meeting between President Donald Trump and Xi in Florida from April 6, but the Trump administration likely rejected it, the source said.
The news of China demanding Harris’s dismissal should be treated with healthy skepticism, given the thin sourcing. But if it is true, it’s a sign that Trump is not a complete pushover. Harris still has his job, and has been pledging that new FONOPs in the South China Sea could happen very soon.
Still, Trump skeptics have found a lot of grist for their mill since the Mar-a-Lago summit: Trump has stated that he does not want to “cause difficulty” for Xi, and has already walked back his pledge to label China a currency manipulator while implying flexibility on a trade deal. Now, the Washington Post reports that he may be stalling on an arms package to Taiwan for fear of upsetting Beijing.
We’ll see how things develop in the coming weeks. Presumably, there are limits to the U.S. President’s patience. At some point, if the North Korea crisis remains unsatisfyingly stalemated, Trump may turn on his Chinese counterparts. After all, transactional diplomacy depends on actual transactions occurring.