In late April, Sam Tangredi, a professor of national, naval and maritime strategy in the US Naval War College, published an article headlined “Build an Island of Freedom,” in which he proposed the Donald Trump administration build a removable offshore base in the South China Sea with the goal of confronting China. The suggestion seems unsuited to the stable situation in the region and might cause trouble in the ongoing Sino-US trade dispute, bringing more uncertainties to relations between China and the US.
The article argues “freedom of navigation” is far from sufficient. The author suggests that the US and its allies take a more decisive approach, such as the establishment of a free island in the South China Sea, which has three strengths. First, it shows that the US has the intention of denying China’s South China Sea claims in a relatively non-confrontational manner and maintain the rules of freedom of navigation. Second, the free island supports “freedom of navigation” through a permanent maritime existence and exerts greater pressure on China. Third, it will force China to gradually back down or otherwise the US will follow China’s example of building islands in the South China Sea.
As a matter of fact, the so-called South China Sea issue was created by the US using territorial disputes to drive a wedge between China and surrounding nations, with the goal of containing China’s rise and maintaining US regional strategic hegemony.
After the South China Sea arbitration, relevant parties realized that putting disputes aside and seeking cooperation was in line with their interests. More countries decided they would rather control their own destinies and take a ride on China’s development to safeguard their national interests than act as a US strategic chess piece.
Foreign ministers of Southeast Asia and China adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea in August last year. Cooperation in joint maritime search and rescue as well as joint exploration has deepened. China has also speeded up political and economic cooperation with ASEAN countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia. This stabilization worries the US. The US strategy of triggering disputes and trying to establish an anti-China front seems to have failed.
Since Donald Trump became president, he has manipulated the South China Sea issue, portraying himself as the defender of US interests. On December 5, 2016, Trump who was the president-elect, tweeted, “Did China ask us if it was OK to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”
On January 11, 2017, Rex Tillerson, then Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, said: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
In June at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis cited China for its military actions in the South China Sea, attempting to portray the US as the protector of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Apart from navigation operations, the Trump administration has also strengthened military cooperation and communication with countries in the region, trying to establish a loose alliance to contain China while selling weapons. However, due to the advocation of an America-First doctrine, the Trump administration’s credit has declined among Asia-Pacific countries.
Trump called for a new Indo-Pacific security strategy of strengthening partnerships among the democracies – mainly the US, Japan, Australia and India – in the region. However, different parties have their own calculations. Following the recent informal meeting between top leaders of China and India as well as Chinese premier’s visit to Japan, the prospect of Washington’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, which is still in the early stages of conceptualization, is dim.
It’s worth noting that since the Trump administration issued its National Security Strategy in December, the Sino-US relationship has suffered tremendous damage and the past relationship featured by a mix of competition and cooperation now faces more strategic conflicts. Although bilateral high-level trade talks reached some consensus on May 5, the shadow of a trade war has not vanished. Strategists from the two countries must prevent trade frictions extending into diplomacy and security as a full range of strategic conflicts would be unbearable for both sides.