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This post was edited by StellaSong at 2016-12-7 17:17|
Responding to criticism over his phone conversation with Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen - the first such contact since Beijing and Washington established diplomatic ties in 1979 and causing a shock to the diplomatic circles - US President-elect Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday, "Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn't tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so!"
It's not surprising Trump blasted China again over the currency issue. But his mention of the South China Sea is a shock. During the election campaign, Trump only talked about the South China Sea issue once. He claimed China's construction activities are "because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country."
For observers on Sino-US relations, in addition to the Taiwan question they now have a new concern about Trump's policy: the South China Sea dispute. Will this hot spot in the competition between China and the US during the Barack Obama term be stirred up again in the Trump era? We cannot interpret Trump's South China Sea policy based on one or two of his tweets, but need to analyze the president-elect's diplomatic logic, his views on China and the status quo of the South China Sea.
Trump has emphasized America first, which means he puts US interests in the first place. Every president of the US attaches great importance to US interests, but what Trump values are concrete interests in terms of security and economy rather than abstract interests and strategic interests stressed by Obama.
The South China Sea, which is far away from the US, will not affect the security of the US. There is no problem with the freedom of navigation in the waters. This may be the reason why Trump rarely mentioned the South China Sea during the election campaign.
But the US national reputation is an important factor for Trump. In his speech on foreign policy, Trump believed a major weakness of the Obama diplomacy is that opponents don't respect the US. Therefore, his recent tweets can be interpreted as saying that China didn't discuss with the US over island building in the South China Sea, nor should the US seek China's consent for whatever it wants to do. The tweets didn't disclose more clear information except Trump's dissatisfaction over China's island construction activities. It's too early to say whether Trump will set himself against China over the South China Sea issue.
If Trump provokes South China Sea conflicts, the most important reason will be that he needs to restore the US diplomatic reputation by doing so, or he deems China has offended US dignity.
Peace through strength will be an important diplomatic principle of Trump. According to his policy advisers in a Foreign Policy article, Trump will not withdraw from Asia. On the contrary, he will increase the number of warships in the Asia-Pacific region. This will increase the possibility of frictions between China and the US.
There is an optimistic factor though. Unlike Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who focused on geopolitical games and competition for hegemony, Trump is mostly worried that Chinese companies are stealing jobs from the US and Chinese products are occupying US markets, From this perspective, Trump's provocations over the Taiwan question and the South China Sea issue are not made with a view toward democracy, human rights or geopolitics, but are more based on considerations over economic competition with China. Once Trump realizes the fact that Beijing and Washington have been economically interdependent, or if the two nations make compromises over trade issues, he will no longer confront China.
Moreover, the situation in the South China Sea is constantly changing. The Philippines, which used to be in the front row to provoke Beijing, has adopted friendly policy toward China under President Rodrigo Duterte. Equally importantly, Duterte does not like Obama yet welcomed Trump. The US-Philippine relationship may be improved during the Trump era. Southeast Asian nations' policy of balancing among major powers rather than picking a side will help reduce the confrontation between Beijing and Washington in the South China Sea.
The author is an associate research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.