In his 12-day trip to Asia, U.S. President Donald Trump largely focused on North Korea and trade, all but avoiding the simmering disputes in the South China Sea and steering clear of sharp criticism of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive activities there.
With the Trump administration focused elsewhere for now, China is quietly pressing ahead with its agenda in one of the world’s most strategic waterways, building more military facilities on man-made islands to buttress its expansionist claims and dramatically expanding its presence at sea at the expense of its smaller neighbors.
Beijing’s under-the-radar advances in the South China Sea could be bad news for countries in the region, for U.S. hopes to maintain influence in the Western Pacific, and for the rules-based international order that for decades has promoted peace and prosperity in Asia.
At the Chinese Communist Party congress last month, President Xi Jinping cited island building in the South China Sea as one of his top achievements so far, and touted the “successful prosecution of maritime rights.” Those rights appear at odds with international law: Xi is now assuring nervous neighbors that China will offer “safe passage” through the seas to other countries in the region.
“The South China Sea has fallen victim to a combination of Trump’s narrow focus on North Korea and the administration’s chaotic and snail-paced policymaking process,” said Ely Ratner of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served as an advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden.
China’s recent advances in the South China Sea aren’t as eye-popping as the overnight creation of artificial atolls in recent years, a massive engineering project dubbed the “great wall of sand” by a top U.S. admiral. That’s one reason the disputes got pushed to the back burner on Trump’s big trip.
“Because there’s no sense of immediate or medium-term crisis (in the South China Sea), they didn’t make it a big priority on the trip,” said Evan Medeiros of the Eurasia Group, who oversaw Asia strategy in the Obama White House.
But experts say the quiet moves — including expanding military bases, constructing radar and sensor installations, hardened shelters for missiles, and vast logistical warehouses for fuel, water, and ammunition — are threatening to turn China’s potential stranglehold on the region into reality.
Much of the activity has centered on three reefs converted into artificial islands through large-scale dredging: Fiery Cross, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, about 650 miles from Hainan Island in southern China. Satellite imagery in June revealed a large dome had been erected on Fiery Cross with another under construction, suggesting a substantial communications or radar system, experts say. At Mischief Reef, workers were installing two more domes.
With runways, hangars for fighter jets, and communications hardware in place on the artificial islands, China can deploy military aircraft and missiles whenever it wants, solidifying its grip over the area and flouting international maritime law. The three newly built bases in the Spratlys, combined with another on Woody Island, will enable Chinese warplanes to fly over nearly the entire South China Sea, according to Pentagon officials and defense analysts. That could be the precursor to an “air defense identification zone” similar to the one that China slapped onto the East China Sea in 2013.
And the new bases have given China much greater reach at sea. Beijing has deployed more naval ships, Coast Guard vessels, and a flotilla of fishing boats that act as a maritime militia virtually around the clock. The ships can now dock nearby to refuel and resupply, rather than sail home, extending their time on station and their ability to project Chinese power through the area. That is changing the balance of power as fishing ships and coast guard vessels from other claimant countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are elbowed away from disputed features.
This summer, for example, Vietnam hoped to drill for natural gas off its own coast. But China reportedly summoned the Vietnamese ambassador and threatened military action if Hanoi went forward with development in its own exclusive economic zone. Sensing little backing from Washington, Vietnam quietly backed down and stopped drilling.
“The sheer numbers are starting to push the Filipinos, the Vietnamese, and the Malaysians out,” said Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
More than nine months into the Trump administration, contrasts with U.S. policy under Barack Obama toward the South China Sea are apparent — as they are with the initial saber-rattling tone of Trump administration officials. The Obama administration put a focus on diplomacy and consistently sought to uphold international law regarding the disputed waterway, though it often shied away from sailing U.S. Navy ships through the waters to send a tough signal to Beijing.
The Trump administration has taken almost the opposite approach: Navy cruises to assert the right of navigation have become commonplace, but there is little sign yet of a concerted U.S. policy to diplomatically push back against Chinese encroachment or offer encouragement to U.S. allies and partners threatened by Beijing’s advances, former officials, experts and foreign diplomats said.
“By having no South China Sea policy, Trump ensures that all the initiative lies with Beijing,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center.
Former U.S. officials and congressional aides said the Trump administration appears to be pulling its punches on the South China Sea, as well as trade issues, in hopes of securing Beijing’s cooperation to cut off North Korea’s access to fuel and cash to fund its nuclear weapons program. So far, China has stopped short of drastic action to squeeze the regime in Pyongyang — and Chinese officials just contradicted Trump’s claims that the two countries have found more common ground.
At the end of his Asia trip, Trump did offer to “mediate” between Vietnam and China, but that spooked officials in Hanoi who fear they could be a pawn in a bigger U.S.-China game centered on North Korea.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on its approach to the South China Sea.
However, some former Obama officials are cautiously optimistic that the Trump administration, hamstrung so far by short staffing at key positions, especially regarding Asia policy, is starting to craft a more coherent policy toward the region, including a sharper focus on China’s activities in the South China Sea. Joint communiques in Japan and Vietnam stressed continued U.S. support for the rule of law and an end to coercion in maritime disputes, for example.
Ratner, the former Biden advisor, said he expects the Trump administration to chart a more proactive course as it settles into office.
“They appear to finally be getting their policy feet under them and I’m expecting more focus on South China Sea in the months ahead,” he said. “So it’s premature to declare it’ll remain a low priority going forward.”