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Trump and the South China Sea: Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

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The media, analysts, and even the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee have criticized U.S. President Donald J. Trump for “pausing” U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. Indeed, on May 10 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to Trump urging him to restart the FONOPs. But Trump’s pause is the right thing to do — if for the wrong reasons.

The Trump administration’s early statements indicated it would be hard on China. Regarding China’s behavior in the South China Sea, Trump’s rhetoric during the presidential campaign as well as early statements from his relevant Cabinet picks indicated that FONOPs in the South China Sea would become more frequent during his administration.

Trump’s nominees for secretary of state (Rex Tillerson) and defense (James Mattis) both talked tough about challenging China’s actions in the South China Sea at their confirmation hearings. Their statements stimulated a flurry of op-eds and editorials urging a more muscular U.S. policy toward China in the South China Sea.

But President Trump and these Cabinet officials are now singing a different tune when it comes to China. Despite previously questioning the “One China” policy, Trump subsequently told China’s President Xi Jinping that he will honor and observe it. Tillerson “clarified” his earlier remarks, indicating that he is not pushing for a blockade of China-occupied features in the South China Sea. Mattis has also walked back his previous belligerent stance, saying that the U.S. would focus on diplomacy regarding the South China Sea disputes. According to Mattis, “[A]t this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all.”

The Trump administration has turned down three PACOM (U.S. Pacific Command) requests to carry out new FONOPs against China. These requests were made largely because that is what PACOM thought the Trump........

© The Diplomat