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  June 12th, 2017 | Written by

Trump’s Evolving China Trade Policy

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  • Observers assumed Trump would aggressively pursue freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
  • Some analysts concluded Trump was accommodating Beijing’s interests, until...
  • ...Chinese fighter jets intercepted US aircraft followed by Trump’s first freedom of navigation operation.

Given President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail regarding China trade issues, observers assumed that the Trump administration would aggressively pursue freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) in the South China Sea, to counter China’s land-grabbing activities in that area.

They had some reason to expect these activities. At his conformation hearings before the United States Senate, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was questioned about China’s military buildup on artificial islands it constructed in the key international and contested waterway. Tillerson responded that the US should block access to those islands, although he did not provide any details of what sort of operation that would involve.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal,” said Tillerson, at the time, “that first, the island-building stops and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”

The dispute over the South China Sea includes implications for freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. An estimated $5 trillion in cargo passes through the South China Sea every year by ship. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have all also articulated claims to parts of the area in dispute. In July 2016, a United Nations arbitration panel in the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a case brought against China over claims in the South China Sea.

In early May, however, The New York Times reported that FONOP requests made by Pacific Command and the Navy had been turned down by the Pentagon. Besides the lack of FONOPs, the trade rhetoric halted, Trump made no critiques of Bejing’s human rights record, and he sent a top Asia expert to Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum (BARF), to participate in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s premiere foreign policy initiative. All this led some analysts to conclude that Trump had decided to accommodate Beijing’s interests.

But shortly after the Belt and Road Forum, Chinese fighter jets intercepted US surveillance aircraft on two occasions over the East and South China seas. US officials complained the actions were “unprofessional” and “unsafe.”

Then, on May 25th, came Trump’s first FONOP in the South China Sea and Beijing protested the passage of a US warship within six nautical miles of the Spratly Island Chain claimed by China.

Given these twists and turns, it’s hard to tell in which direction Trump policy is headed. It’s possible we’ll know more after the two sides meet at the G20 Summit in Hamburg next month.