Donald Trump Just Gave Chinese Hawks a Great Talking Point on the South China Sea
On Sunday evening, U.S. President-Elect Donald J. Trump made his first public comment on the South China Sea since winning the U.S. presidential election on November 8. Taking to Twitter, Trump issued two tweets, mentioning the South China Sea alongside economic issues on the U.S.-China agenda:
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!
I don’t want to make close-reading tweets from the next president of the United States a habit, as they might not end up informing policy that could otherwise be shaped primarily by his staff and appointees, but there’s a few important points worth noting here and may be of interest to Diplomat readers.
First, the facts: China does not possess something that I would call a “massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea.” We’ve covered Chinese moves and developments in the South China Sea extensively here at The Diplomat, and the closest things that would come to what Trump is talking about would be the Chinese base at Woody Island in the Paracels, which hosts a full-time personnel contingent of around 1,400 People’s Liberation Army troops, or the Hainan Island submarine base. Neither is geographically in the “middle” of the South China Sea, exactly.
Trump could alternatively be referring to China’s seven artificial islands. Chinese President Xi Jinping famously resolved not to militarize these features, which are all in the Spratly Islands, but satellite imagery analysis has steadily shown China setting up dual-use infrastructure, including air strips, on these islands, suggesting that militarization could be forthcoming. The seven distinct artificial islands do not compose one single “massive military complex” and are interspersed with features occupied by other South China Sea claimants. A charitable read of the president-elect’s remark might concede that taken together, these Chinese initiatives can be described as a “massive military complex.” Trump has used the term “fortress” in the past, as well.
(As an aside, Trump’s remark on Chinese taxes on U.S. products is somewhat of a non-sequitur. China is part of the World Trade Organization and hasn’t faced criticism from the body for non-compliant tariffs against the United States. China has lost separate WTO cases against the United States, the European Union, and Japan over its restrictions on rare earth minerals, and against the EU and Japan over anti-dumping tariffs related to stainless steel imports.)
Second, the South China Sea claimants: Trump’s tweets imply that China should be asking the United States permission to build military facilities in the South China Sea. While it is true that Chinese claims in the South China Sea are capacious, provocative, and in conflict with international law, the United States is not a claimant in the South China Sea and has made a policy of not taking a position on questions of sovereignty in these disputes. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan are the other formal claimants in the South China Sea. (Part of Indonesia’s claimed exclusive economic zone overlaps with China’s claims as well.) Read more…