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Trump’s troubling South China Sea policy

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HAIKOU, CHINA – Analysts and government officials with interest in the South China Sea imbroglio have been befuddled by the mixed signals being sent by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration regarding China’s claims and actions there. Apparently this prevarication is an example of Trump’s “transactional” approach to foreign policy. But this is not just a matter of style. Trump’s backpedaling and bargaining has some prime implications for the security paradigm in the region — and perhaps beyond.

Some commentators welcomed the Trump administration’s early statements indicating it would be “tough” on China. His rhetoric during the presidential campaign and early statements from his Cabinet nominees indicated that Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea would become more frequent during his administration.

Indeed, Trump’s nominees for secretaries of state (Rex Tillerson) and for defense (James Mattis) both talked tough about China at their confirmation hearings. They engendered hope for those wanting the United States to “stand up to China” in the South China Sea and stimulated a flurry of opinion pieces and statements urging a more muscular U.S. policy toward China there. During his February visit to Asia, Mattis assured his Japanese counterparts that the U.S. would be more active in asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Momentum was building for a confrontation with China.

But both friend and foe were misled. As late as May 2, Trump’s nominee for ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, said at his confirmation hearings that “China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce neighbors or limit freedom of navigation or overflight.” Clearly he and others thought that was the Trumpian line to be taken — and did so.

But Trump, Tillerson and Mattis are now singing a different tune. Despite previously questioning the “One........

© The Japan Times