Water Wars

Water Wars: Asia-Pacific Grapples with new American Administration

By Chris Mirasola
Friday, January 27, 2017, 8:30 AM

China, US allies, and other respond to President Trump's first week

President Trump signs Executive Order withdrawaing the US from the TPP (Photo: EPA)

Countries in the Asia-Pacific spent the week adjusting, fitfully, to the new American administration, though much remains unknown regarding President Trump’s plans for the region.

We begin with China’s reactions to the Trump administration. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, continued to catch flack from Beijing regarding his comments two weeks ago that China must be denied access to artificial islands in the South China Sea. A commentary from The People’s Daily, the government’s news mouthpiece, declared that no amount of “word bombs” could stop China’s drills. It went on to say that “these provocations, pressure, fantasies and over-exaggerations will not prevent the normal drills of the Chinese military.”

Beijing balanced asserting its interests and welcoming cooperation immediately following President Trump’s inauguration. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, responding to Trump’s promise to put “America first,” told reporters that China-US business ties are “mutually beneficial in nature” and called on the US and China to “work together to expand cooperation in trade.” Addressing Sino-American relations more broadly, Hua said that a stable bilateral relationship “serves the fundamental interests of the two countries and peoples, and contributes to the peace, stability and development of the Asia-Pacific and beyond.” A similar perspective was offered in a piece at Xinhua. As always, however, Hua also stated that, “China holds a firm position on issues concerning its sovereignty and territory,” and stressed that, “the one-China principle is the political foundation of China-US relations.”

Beijing reacted more forcefully to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s warning that “If those islands are, in fact, in international waters and not part of China proper” Washington would “make sure we defend international interests from being taken over by one country.” Spokesperson Hua said that China’s position is “clear, consistent and remains unchanged,” and “urge[d] the US side to respect the facts and be prudent in words and actions to avoid causing disruptions to peace and stability of [sic] the South China Sea.” Chinese scholars quoted in the Global Times were more pugnacious in defending Chinese interests. For an overview of what it might look like, operationally, to disrupt Chinese access to artificial islands, see this piece from Breaking Defense.

Trump’s executive order rescinding Washington’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) caused consternation amongst US allies and partners. Australian Prime Minister Turnbull told reporters that, though losing the US was a big loss, “we are not about to walk away . . . certainly there is potential for China to join the TPP.” Tokyo rejected this possibility, finding that, “the balance of interests would crumble” without Washington. When asked if China would consider joining TPP, Spokesperson Hua hedged, emphasizing the importance of renewed negotiations within the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. New Zealand Prime Minister English signaled that his country would also reemphasize negotiating the RCEP.

Officials in Tokyo appear to be concerned about the strength of Trump’s commitment to US-Japan alliance. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that Japan is waiting for word on the Trump administration’s position on defending the Senkaku Islands under its Mutual Defense Agreement. A senior official from the Defense Ministry expressed concern about whether Trump would require Tokyo to increase its support of US troops stationed in Japan. Tokyo currently pays for 70% of the troop costs. Other members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party also worried about a revival of protectionism under Trump’s “America First” policy.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was similarly concerned about a loss of US leadership in the region, “given how crucial the Asia Pacific is to America’s security and economy.” Given the possibility of a decreased role for the United States, however, Hishammuddin proposed an increased role for ASEAN in ensuring regional security.

Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen sent a delegation to attend President Trump’s inauguration, which warmly welcomed the new administration. The delegation was led by Former Premier Yu Shyi-kun (previously leader of the current ruling party) and included current parliamentarians from four political parties. Given greater instability in US commitment to the One China policy, it is unsurprising that Beijing officials see a “grim” future for cross-Strait relations in 2017. For more on who was included in the inaugural delegation, see this piece from Frances Kitt at The Interpreter.

In other news...


Beijing took a number of steps to upgrade its military capacity this week. First, the guided missile destroyer Xining was added to the PLA’s North China See fleet. Given that China’s shipbuilders encountered diminished commercial order in 2016, China Daily projects that we may see many more such naval contracts to produce warships for the Chinese Navy. China Ocean News also reports that the Gaofen-3, a Chinese military satellite, is currently operational. Its capacities can assist China in monitoring developments in the South China Sea. And finally, in a rare move, the Global Times reported that a new intercontinental ballistic missile, the DF-41, is being deployed to northern China’s Heilongjiang Province. The missile can carry up to a dozen nuclear warheads.

Confirming rumors from last week, Beijing appointed Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, former chief of the South Sea Fleet, to command the Chinese Navy. Notably, Shen led a number of warships at the 2014 US-led Rim of the Pacific exercise, a first for the Chinese Navy. He later made an official visit to San Diego. The outgoing commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, remains a member of the Central Military Commission, China’s highest military organization. At the same time, Beijing also announced new commanders for its three naval fleets. Wang Hai, Zhang Wendan, and Wei Gang will lead the South Sea, North Sea, and East Sea fleets respectively.

The State Oceanic Administration announced that it would regularly inspect local management of marine resources and protection of the marine environment. Administration spokesperson Gao Zhongwen said that the national inspection system would ensure cost-effective use of marine resources. Vice Minister of Agriculture Yu Kangzhen also told reporters that China plans to reduce its fish catch by 3.1 million tons (to 10 million tons) by 2020. Yu said that the government “will cut down on fishing vessels, examine catches at ports, and act against undersized catches.”

Finally, President Xi Jinping gained, or potentially gained, two new titles this week. The Communist Party Central Committee decided that Xi would lead a new central commission for integrated military and civilian development. Few details have emerged about what this integration might portend. Additionally, Zhang Jun, Director General of the Foreign Ministry International Economic Department, responding to questions after Trump’s “America First” speech, said that, “If China is required to play [a global] leadership role then China will assume its responsibilities.

United States

Not all is gloomy for US partners and allies in the Asia-Pacific. Defense Secretary James Mattis will make his first overseas visit to US allies Japan and South Korea next week. Commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, will also visit Thailand to attend military exercises next month. Harris will be the highest ranking US officer to visit Thailand since Thailand’s 2014 coup. And finally, Senator John McCain proposed $7.5 billion in new funding for US forces and allies in the Asia-Pacific.

Admiral Harris also made waves this week when he told reporters that, “there is sharing of information regarding Chinese maritime movement in the Indian Ocean.” Harris reiterated that Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific was a concern, and promoted two agreements, still pending, that would increase intelligence sharing between the two countries.

Donald Trump announced Hong Kong-based venture capitalist Philip Bilden as his nominee for Secretary of the Navy. Bilden served in the Army Reserve as a military intelligence officer from 1986 to 1996 and has spent three decades in international investment firms. He beat out former Representative Randy Forbes, an early Trump supporter who until recently led the seapower subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, for the position.


On Tuesday Japan launched the first of three X-band military communications satellites that will eventually quadruple broadband capacity. Japanese officials are also reviewing the country’s National Defense Program Guideline to reinforce its capabilities as a military power by the mid-2020s. Though they are usually adopted every ten years, Japan is reviewing the guidelines after only four years. It is reported that the plans are likely to include building a new ballistic-missile defense system and establishing a joint headquarters for ground, maritime, and air forces.

In what is now nearly a bi-weekly occurrence, three Chinese coast guard vessels entered territorial waters around the Japanese-administered Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries also found that a total of 228 Chinese fishing vessels operated near Japan’s northern Exclusive Economic Zone in 2016. These vessels, 67 of which were unregistered, appear to have violated the 2016 North Pacific Fisheries Commission agreement, which mandates registering all fishing vessels authorized to operate in the open sea.

Finally, Emperor Akihito will visit Vietnam in late February.


After months of uncertainty, Hong Kong officials announced that nine troop transport vehicles seized while returning from exercises in Taiwan will be returned to Singapore. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told reporters that, “this is a positive outcome” and thanked Hong Kong authorities for their cooperation. Hong Kong’s Commissioner of Customs and Excise Roy Tang said that its investigation is complete, though it may still “lead to criminal prosecution.”


State-owned Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. has started upgrading Taiwan’s fleet of US-manufactured F-16 fighter jets. Lockheed Martin sent engineers to Taiwan last year to train local personnel how to upgrade the aircraft’s combat capability. The retrofit is slated for completion within six years.


General Tito Karnavian, Indonesia’s police chief, announced that 7,000 additional personnel would be sent to the Riau Islands, Indonesia’s closest territories to the South China Sea. Karnavian stated that “Although Indonesia is not a claimant party in the disputed waters we should always be on alert, and even more so as we will see a succession of leadership in the US from President Barack Obama to Donald Trump.”

The Philippines

Manila and Beijing agreed to $3.7 billion in development projects aimed at “improving people’s living standards.” Specifics of the deal have not yet been released.


Ambassador to China Dang Minh Khoi confirmed that Hanoi has not increased or reduced its activities on islands and reefs in the South China Sea.


Vice Admiral Anuwi Hassan told reporters that the Royal Malaysian Navy would be split into two fleets to increase the country’s presence, and surveillance, over disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

In light of increasing uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific, rigorous analysis of geostrategic and military planning is needed more than ever. Thankfully, this week there were a number that met this need. First, The Economist has an excellent piece explaining Cambodia’s close relationship with China and why it is a cause of concern for Cambodia’s neighbors. Nguyen The Phuong and Truong Minh Vu at AMTI analyze developments in the capacity of Vietnam’s Coast Guard. Thomas Jandl at East Asia Forum also writes on Vietnam, arguing that Vietnam needs to undergo its own geostrategic pivot in light of the Trump administration’s priorities. Zhibo Qu at The Diplomat notes how China’s presence in the South China Sea has become increasingly reliant on civilians. James Fannell and Scott Cheney-Peters urge US policymakers to plan for a 500 ship Chinese Navy.

Taking a broader perspective, Douglas Gates at The Diplomat worries that international law is under siege in the South China Sea. Daniel Urchick at Small Wars Journal provides a comprehensive intelligence estimate for developments in the South China Sea over the next three years. And finally, thinking more abstractly, Edyta Roszko at Cross-Currents outlines the connection between fisheries and territorial anxieties in providing narratives of national entitlement in the South China Sea.

Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please email Chris Mirasola with breaking news, relevant documents, or corrections.