The Trump administration is pursuing a confusing set of policies in East and Southeast Asia that some consider dangerous. President Donald Trump is determined to confront China militarily in the South China Sea, while simultaneously disrupting the important U.S.-China trade relationship. Mystifyingly, he has also taken steps to assure that Chinese economic influence around the Pacific Rim will grow significantly.
The South China Sea
The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea — aka UNCLOS — states that a country's maritime boundary is 12 nautical miles from its shore. Yet China claims much of the South China Sea — up to hundreds of miles from its shore. To assert its control over the region, which is the shipping lane for 25% of the world's goods and oil, China has been rapidly constructing on and militarizing islands.
The Obama Administration challenged these claims by continuously patrolling disputed areas to show China that it did not recognize these claims. It also held a major naval exercise in the South China Sea. The Trump Administration appears ready to do much more: In addition to running more ships and increasing the U.S. naval presence in the South China Sea, according to CNBC, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that "China should not be allowed access to islands it has built in the contested South China Sea." And Steve Bannon has said that there is "no doubt" that the U.S. will go to war with China in the South China Sea.
China's claims have already been ruled illegal by an international arbitration tribunal, and the U.S. — which is not a signatory to UNCLOS but abides by its terms — would be wise to push back against Chinese expansionism in the region. Former President Barack Obama could have done this without fear of escalation due to the good economic relationship we had with China. Now, Trump seems intent on changing that.
Trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Trump has also threatened to levy tariffs as high as 45% on Chinese goods. These tariffs would do little to help manufacturing job growth in the United States, which has been reduced more so as a result of automation than offshoring. The tariff could easily hurt the Chinese economy, as the U.S. is China's top export market. Factories that produce exports could end up moving to Malaysia or Vietnam, regional rivals where costs are lower than the United States, as a result of the tariff.
Despite his rhetoric, Trump has also taken actions to bolster China's economic importance in the Pacific and to drive our allies closer to Beijing. One of his first acts as president was to sign a memorandum withdrawing U.S. support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. TPP was a free trade agreement between 12 countries around the Pacific Rim. It was designed in part to further tie these countries to the United States and was in U.S. national security interests as well.
Now many regional countries are eyeing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a Chinese proposal for a free trade area of 16 countries. RCEP would effectively shut out the United States, and make its allies and regional friends more economically reliant on China.
It seems that, when it comes to China, Trump has decided to use the "carrot and stick" method of diplomacy — he just forgot the carrot.
Correction: Feb. 9, 2017
This article has been updated to accurately reflect the acronym for the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is UNCLOS.