Water Wars

Water Wars: Trump Exports ‘America First’ to Asia

By Jimmy Chalk
Thursday, November 16, 2017, 7:00 AM

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald J. Trump concluded his marathon 12-day Asia tour, which raised new questions about the United States’ role in the region—specifically, what does “America First” mean for a region caught between an intimidating neighbor growing quickly in power and influence and a distant friend seeking to collect on old debts? And what does the answer mean for the South China Sea?

In the run-up to Trump’s trip, that China had continued to pursue its construction efforts in the South China Sea at a swift pace, and that the South China Sea must be among the primary issues Trump raised on the trip. Following these reports, the administration unveiled a theme for the tour: “,” a vision quite compatible with that of previous administrations. National security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster , “[Trump’s] trip is a great opportunity to demonstrate America's and the Trump administration's commitment to the Indo-Pacific and our efforts to strengthen longstanding American alliances and expand new partnerships.” But as became clear during Trump’s first stops in and , that commitment to freedom and openness may come with : significant .

After conferring with the U.S.’ closest regional allies ( to help narrow trade deficits), Trump arrived in Beijing to a lavish reception. There he had a “frank” with Chinese President Xi Jinping over the South China Sea; Chinese state media reported that both parties expressed support for freedom of navigation and overflight. After the visit, the administration unveiled a , which, if realized, would ever-so-slightly narrow the U.S.-China trade deficit, which Trump “very one-sided and unfair.” He quickly qualified that remark, though, saying, “I don’t blame China. Who can blame a country that is able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”

The tour’s next stop was the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings on the shore of the South China Sea in Da Nang, Vietnam, where Trump his economic message: “[W]e seek robust trading relationships rooted in the principles of fairness and reciprocity ... We expect that markets will be open to an equal degree on both sides.” He also briefly to the South China Sea dispute, saying, “we must uphold principles that have benefitted all of us, like respect for the rule of law, individual rights, and freedom of navigation and overflight, including open shipping lanes.” Later, in Hanoi, , telling Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, “I am a very good mediator and arbitrator.” Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano “” the offer, after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte he would Xi on the sidelines of the APEC conference, but returned to Manila the dispute was “better left untouched” as Xi had informed him that China’s military build-up in the region was “.” Also in that conversation, Xi, in keeping with China’s aspirations to regional leadership, appeared to suggest it was in “safeguard[ing] peace, stability, and prosperity of the South China Sea region.” Xi later engaged in bilateral meetings with Vietnam, during which to avoid boiling over into subsequent multilateral meetings. from Japan indicated that China had sought to minimize discussion of the South China Sea during bilateral meetings.

Duterte, who chairs the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), played host to both the 50th ASEAN Forum and the East Asia Forum in Manila after the conclusion of the APEC meetings. There he in a speech: “The South China Sea is better left untouched. It can ill afford a violent confrontation. We don’t have the luxury of war and violence.” He also met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and a code of conduct for the South China Sea, among other things. Soon after, to begin code of conduct talks—which . The parties also agreed to .

Though Trump left the East Asia Summit before its conclusion due to a program delay, he was to have leaders there, “I remain concerned about China’s efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea.” Just before returning to Washington, an on-message : “[W]e want fair trade. We want reciprocal trade. And we'll see a lot of great things happen. We're also very open—we're open for trade. But we have to be treated fairly. We have to be treated in a reciprocal fashion.” He appears to have made no mention of the South China Sea dispute.


In Other News...


Japan, India, Australia and the United States in Manila this week over regional cooperation, recalling similar discussions in the early- and mid-2000s. Kevin Rudd, the prime minister of Australia at the time, had withdrawn from the group, known as the “Quad” to secure better relations with China. This week, the meeting consisted of “working officials” discussing seven key themes: “the rules-based order in Asia, freedom of navigation and overflight in the maritime commons, respect for international law, enhancing connectivity, maritime security, the North Korean threat and nonproliferation, and terrorism.” Commentators the of the Quad’s resurrection.

United States

Australia, South Korea and the United States in the East China Sea, with Japan joining later upon South Korea’s departure. In a rare move, consisted of : the USS Nimitz, USS Ronald Reagan, and USS Theodore Roosevelt groups.

The U.S. is also sending a permanent Coast Guard contingent to the South China Sea.

United States-Philippines

After their meeting in Manila, Trump and Duterte issued , which Julian Ku noted contained or of . Trump in his remarks to the press gaggle at the conclusion of the trip, saying, “we have a very, very strong relationship with the Philippines, which is really important—less so for trade, in this case, than for military purposes. It is a strategic location—the most strategic location. And, if you look at it, it's called the most prime piece of real estate from a military standpoint.”


Over the past two weeks, China appears to have made a concerted effort to display its technical prowess in the maritime, energy and military fields, all geared toward reinforcing and making permanent their presence in the South China Sea. They announced a “” on the Paracels’ Woody Island, a to support island transport missions, a , upgrades to its , an , plans to launch a , and, last but not least, a to go into service “in early 2018.”

United States-China

China’s aspirations for exclusive regional leadership are clear, as of South China Sea talks, saying, “The South China Sea isn’t an issue between China and the United States” and that the U.S. should “plant more flowers and fewer thorns, help and not cause problems.” Meanwhile, Chinese aircraft continue to near Guam, in an attempt to test U.S. air defense capabilities. Military officials China “very much the long-term challenge in the region,” as it begins contesting airspace over the South China Sea “on a daily basis.”


Duterte is to not to occupy the Scarborough Shoal and Pag-Asa Islands off the coast of the Philippines and is said to be “” China will stop its expansion. Meanwhile, within their exclusive economic zone were halted after Beijing complained. China and the Philippines a “” for communication regarding maritime conflicts in the South China Sea. Finally, between China and the Philippines to determine whether it comports with Philippine law.


As , Taiwan is , and on an island it claims in the South China Sea. The country’s president this week, and Taiwan made efforts to build during the meetings in the Southeast Asia.

Analysis and Commentary

Important commentary and analysis this week includes discussion of , which critics say “” in the region, by “.” Former national security adviser Susan Rice said Trump was “Making China Great Again” by , handing leadership of the newly christened “Indo-Pacific” to China on a silver platter. Others puzzled over how the U.S. expects to get things done in the region . Some were by the gravity of the South China Sea issue.

Other commentators (minus the U.S.), which “offers a liberal alternative to the Chinese economic model of protected markets and policies favoring state “champions” while also advancing the vision of multilateralism as the Trump administration pushes for one-on-one deals.”

Perhaps most poignantly, Xi’s recent quotation of American founding father Benjamin Franklin, “He who can have patience, [sic] can have what he will,” and concludes her piece with the following: “Trump’s trip in Beijing seems to have fully demonstrated the saying to the world: China can have what it will, using patience as well as money.”

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