Trump and the South China Sea Conflict: Pivot to Obama?

The Obama Administration regarded the Asia-Pacific Region as one of the key elements of global policy and they introduced the Pivot to Asia initiative in accordance with the American interests, as a result of which the South China Sea also came to the foreground of America. Although his South China Sea Policy was not outlined during his presidential election campaign, Trump urged stronger action against the Chinese ambitions after taking office. However, it is becoming more and more obvious over time that he is approximating the careful strategy represented by Obama, too.

The South China Sea Conflict

The South China Sea is generally characterized as a complex marine area full of challenges. This huge and semi-closed region is home to a geographically complex place with numerous island groups, islands, cliffs and reefs. Complicating the matter further is the fact that most of such marine formations are claimed by several states as theirs, in many cases, however, it is not clear how many islands exactly comprise each island group and even their geographical classification is unclear very often. The main reason for complexity is the unclarity and complexity of international law with respect to maritime law, the definition of borders, the possession of islands, the historical rights and the continental shelf rights.[i] Therefore, it can be established that this is one of the most complicated marine regions.

The South China Sea is an extensive but semi-closed territory, which is bordered by the southern coast of China and Taiwan on the north, the mainland Southeast Asia and its archipelago on the west, and island groups such as the Philippines and Indonesia on the east and on the west.[ii] The main island groups in this territory are the following:

  • the Paracel Islands (XishaQundao西群岛), consisting of some 130 islands. The parties to the dispute are China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
  • The Pratas Islands (DongshaQundao东沙群岛), whose main part is the Pratas Reef, the 11-mile-long coral reef, surrounds a valuable lagoon and is under Taiwanese administration but demanded by China, too).
  • The Scarborough Reef (HuangyanDao黄岩岛) is also an extensive coral reef, which however disappears at high tide erős dagálykor and only small parts remain above sea level. The disputed parties? are China/Taiwan and the Philippines. The Macclesfield Coast (ZhongshaQundao中沙群岛), an underwater reef and bench-land, also belongs here.
  • The Spratly Islands (NanshaQundao南沙群岛) includes 150–180 small islands, rocks, rock formations and reefs as well as several formations constantly being under water. Brunei, China/Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all claim them.
  • The Natuna Islands, which is a relatively large group of islands on the southwestern part of the South China Sea.

However, the conflict itself has some significance beyond the occupancy of the marine formations, since marine routes of strategic importance run through the South China Sea with goods of 5.3 billion dollars passing through it annually on the average, which makes up 30 per cent of the international sea trade.[iii] According to the estimation of the US Energy Information Administration, approx. 11 million barrels of oil and 5.4 billion cubic meters of natural gas can be found in the bottom of the sea, and the report of the UN says that the South China Sea possesses over 10 per cent of the global fish stock.[iv]

For these reasons, the region is getting more and more attention these days, as in the early 2010s the Obama Administration announced the Pivot to Asia Policy with the leading of the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.[v] Since then the situation has been escalating and loaded with continuous changes. In 2014 the Chinese artificial island constructions were started. Furthermore, 2016 was also a significant year for the territory, as the Philippines has initiated a legal procedure at the International Court of Justice in The Hague against China in 2013, saying that its exaggerated territorial commands were not in harmony with the international law. The judgement was announced on 12 July 2016, when the Philippines had had a new president for a month, starting a new foreign policy different from his predecessor’s one and being reserved regarding the judgement.[vi]

2016 was the year of elections in the United States of America, too, and China increased its presence and the building of artificial islands, being aware of this and taking advantage of the situation that the main great power was busy with the campaign, and after the elections it will act based upon the fact who the new president is and what the main interests are in this new situation. These days the countries increase their military power and intentionally enhance nationalism in this region.

Pivot to Asia

In recent years the main strategic goal of the US law-makers has been to prevent such a regional hegemon from rising either in Eurasia or anywhere else that could be able to project any power threatening the US interests such as the access to resources or commerce. Having taken office in January 2009, the Obama Administration introduced their Pivot to Asia”[vii] concept. After this announcement several high-rank officials paid official visits to the region, including high-ranking civil servants US State of Secretary Hillary Clinton (whose first official visit led to Asia,[viii] and the US presence was increased at the regional multilateral meetings, which was culminated by the signing of the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and the attendance at the state-level East Asia Summit. In November 2011 the Rebalance to Asia Policy was announced, which is based upon the above mentioned and deepens and institutionalizes the US commitment toward the Asia-Pacific Region.[ix]

According to Hillary Clinton, after the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan the US has to be smart and systematic when considering where to invest money and effort in order to put the Americans at an advantage, maintain their leading role, and preserve their interests and values. The US foreign policy has chosen the Asia-Pacific region because this region is becoming the economic, political and military centre of the world. More than half of humanity lives in this territory and the population of the region will continue to grow until 2050. It is the key point of the global economy and an essential market of US goods. It is home to several important US associations and emerging powers equipped with considerable military power; therefore, the defense costs are also on the increase in this region. The maintenance of security has become a high priority under these circumstances for both the US and other nations, especially because dynamism can be observed not only in growth but also in competition and confrontation. Therefore, rebalance was born mainly so as to realize the changing of the region in the spirit of stability and security.[x]

According to Clinton, America should take advantage of the Asian growth and dynamism because this is the economic and strategic interest of America and the United States of America have the opportunity to facilitate the building of a more advanced security and economic structure, resulting in stability and flourishment. Hillary has explained the implementation of this strategy in six key points:[xi]

  • consolidation of bilateral security cooperation;
  • deepening the existing US relations with the emerging states including China;
  • commitment to the regional multilateral institutions;
  • extension of the industry and investments;
  • provision of a comprehensive military presence with the traditional East Asian partners and involvement of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean;
  • development of the democracy and human rights.

The United States of America have economic and security interests in this region, and since this region stretches from the Indian Ocean through the South China Sea and the East China Sea to the Pacific Ocean, the US leadership should pay much attention to this region. For this purpose, the US Department of Defense also intends to create a safety environment in the Asia-Pacific Region in order to ensure the freedom of navigation, prevent conflicts, represent international law and norms, and enforce the American interests. They are responsible for improving their military capacities from the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia, ensuring stability and reacting to any potential threats; furthermore, they have to enable their allies and partners to face the challenges in the region; apply military diplomacy, represent confidence, stability and standard behavior; and they have to promote the efficiency of regional institutions in order to elaborate a single marine safety concept.[xii]

Based upon the above, the Asia-Pacific Policy of the Obama Government can be built upon the following pillars:[xiii]

  1. Washington tries to consolidate the economic relations, since their economies are strongly interdependent. A key element of this is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), aiming to bring the US economy closer to the economies of the 11 countries and grant the high-level functioning of the commercial system and the US export.[xiv]
  2. To increase military capacity so that the United States of America will be able to successfully prevent the conflicts and react in critical situations. The Pentagon ensures the military aspect of the rebalance, which grants that the US will remain the main security provider of the region in the next period, too. The Department of Defense committed itself to garrison 60 per cent of its naval forces and overseas air force in the region.[xv]
  3. To deepen the defense relations. To improve functionality and cooperation, and perform common operations in order to develop the partners’ marine awareness and security force, which will hopefully result in a stronger and collective capacity. These relations already date back many decades and are built upon mutual interests, values and sacrifices, tested in crises. The main allies include South Korea, Japan and the Philippines, and it has also established several significant relationships with countries such as India, Vietnam and Singapore.
  4. To consolidate the diplomatic relations in the region. To increase the number of visits and fulfil an important role in the life of the region, which promotes the economic, political and security future of the Asia-Pacific Region.[xvi]
  5. To consolidate the regional security institutions in order to facilitate the establishment of an open and expedient regional security formation. They intend to give a multilateral answer to each marine challenge, therefore, the Department of Defense enhances the relations with ASEAN-based institutions.[xvii] Unlike other parts of the world, no institution covering the whole region such as the NATO in Europe was born in order to assume responsibility for security and stability. It allows the countries to actively take part in the elimination of the consequences of humanitarian and natural disasters, fight with common issues such as terrorism and ensure equal accessibility of free areas such as water routes.[xviii]
Trump’s campaign promises – Breaking down Obama’s pillars

In his campaign promises, Trump imposed severe sanctions on the region, including both China and its main ally, when he summoned Japan and South Korea to increase their defense budget, which would at the same time decrease the extent of US supports and thus the expenses and inspire the allies to greater independence.[xix] Among others, he promised to quit TPP because he supposes that the US interests are violated. He expressed serious trading sanctions against China. He held out the prospect of military action and power demonstration both against North Korea and the activity on the South China Sea. Rex Tillerson went so far as to call China’s steps illegal actions on the South China Sea and the East China Sea,[xx] and he also said that he would send unambiguous signals to China in order to stop the building of artificial islands and to prevent the contact with the islands built.[xxi]

In the initial stage of the campaign promises and election Trump broke down nearly all the pillars set up by the Obama Government.

  • Pillar 1: promised to quit TTP
  • Pillars 2 and 3: asked for more independence from its two main allies in the region
  • Pillar 4: the economic and military estrangement shook the diplomatic trust, too
  • Pillar 5: they prefer bilateral relations to institutions and multilateralism.

While the Obama Administration mainly relied on diplomacy and economic dominance, Trump builds on power demonstration and the protection of American interests in his campaign promises. Still, the US electors preferred this more aggressive and entirely different political promise. The odd thing about the elections is that Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton envisioned the Pivot to Asia.

After the inauguration-some pillars are built again

On 20 January 2017 the new President was inaugurated. Three days later he resigned the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), true to his promise. The concept itself and the negotiations had been initiated by the Obama Administration five years ago; however, it had never been ratified by the Congress.[xxii] This free trade treaty covered the countries of the Asia-Pacific Region and partly aimed to stop the increasing Chinese influence. The previous US leadership intended to offer an alternative to the countries of the region against China and thus maintain the balance and prevent the Chinese influence from spreading. The countries of the region also welcomed this idea as they hoped to prevent China from setting up rules unilaterally against them in the region. TTP offered a multilateral treaty in which the parties would have enforced their interests jointly. Disregarding this partnership now, the US rather intends to enter into bilateral agreements where it can dictate the conditions thanks to his dominant economic position. This, however, put its allies in a difficult position, who felt disappointed and would probably think about approaching China.

Later Trump’s policy turned into a more moderate direction concerning the region, probably because of the more rational and careful attitude of the Administration standing behind him. It is true, however, that the pillar of economic interdependence did collapse when he quitted the TPP treaty. At the same time, the US Secretary of Defense visited Asia in order to assure the US’s two main allies in the region of his support. He also added that the present Government will continue the policy started by the former Government, but he drew no clear line like the one drawn by Obama in relation to the Syrian intervention and the chemical weapons. James Mattis visited Japan and South Korea. In Tokyo he confirmed the defense treaty between the two countries and assured both countries of the commitment of the United Stated of America toward its allies. In Seoul he conducted negotiations on the installation of THAAD, the American anti-ballistic missile defense system, which were soon followed by an agreement. James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State have a similar opinion and attitude concerning the Chinese activity on the South China sea that the Obama Government used to have.[xxiii]

According to the official website of the White House, his highest priority is the fight against the ISIS and other radicalized Islam terrorist groups.[xxiv]  This is a great landmark as compared to the Obama Administration because he has turned to the old focal point. Holding out the prospect of “rebuilding” the US Army, the Asian aspect of his foreign policy is only the second aspect after the Near East. As he puts it, the naval force consisted of 500 ships in 1991 and only 275 in 2016, while the anti-aircraft defense has decreased to one third since 1991.[xxv] This is mainly due to the more and more aggressive assertion of Chinese interests on the South China Sea and the East China Sea. During the Obama Administration no considerable progress was made in relation to the South China Sea issue or the island disputes. As a result, however, the Chinese moved further and further on the South China Sea thanks to the building of artificial islands and establishment of military bases, which the surrounding countries were unable to prevent.

Therefore, upon his inauguration, Trump intends to restore the military pillars and the related diplomatic relations.

Pivot to Obama or can every pillar be restored?

The application of excessive force might bear fruit in the short term but inefficient in the long term. It would be far more important to deepen the diplomatic and economic relations, which the Trump Administration comes to see, too. Nevertheless, a great number of countries in the region suppose that the US has let them down, economically mainly concerning the failure of the American multilateralism. Therefore, the main task of the US would be to more or less restore this lost economic confidence and prevent the relevant countries from entirely getting committed toward China in economic terms.

All the world was more and more enthusiastic and the region was more and more tense to see the new US President’s Asia Policy after his inauguration. Trump was elected President nearly a year ago; however, he still has no clearly established policy regarding this region, although something has already started to take form in the speech delivered by James Mattis at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the first public speech on Asian security issues during the Trump Era.[xxvi] Among others, he promised to strengthen his allies in the region, make the region more closely connected and more cooperative, and increase the US military capacity. In addition to that, there was talk of the South China Sea, with the promise of continuing the FONOP military operations, i.e.  the freedom of navigation in a more structured  way.[xxvii]

Some experts suppose that in the history of the US policy the secession from the Pacific Free Trade Treaty has caused the most serious loss of US influence in the region since the Vietnam War.[xxviii] It is China that wants to fill the gap emerged because of this. However, tight economic relations not only have a positive side: if a country having only a small economy needs the support of a country with a large economy, which is China in the present case, then this economic dependence is often taken advantage of by a country in a dominant position, and in the given case it applies this dependence to enforce its own interests, as we could see it in the case of the Philippines[xxix] and as we can see it now in the case of South Korea and the American anti-ballistic missile defense system (THAAD).[xxx] As a reflection to the TPP, China can offer the concept of the New Silk Road, under which it grants loans to the countries for infrastructure development, establishing severe conditions and thus gaining control over these countries.[xxxi]

In November 2017 Donald Trump visited several countries in Asia including Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. No far-reaching progress was made in Trump’s Asia Policy; however, the tour itself showed his commitment toward the region.[xxxii]

Trump’s Asia Policy has become far more sophisticated and largely approached to the policy represented by the Obama Administration; however, Trump made some alterations.[xxxiii] While during the Obama Government the main source of conflict was the South China Sea, the Trump Administration excessively concentrates on North Korea and everything else ranked only second in the region. While Obama relied on the Southeast Asian region, on his Asian tour Trump announced the open and free Indo-Pacific region including India, Japan, Australia and the USA.[xxxiv] While the previous Government stood up for economic multilateralism, under which the TPP was drawn up, the present Administration retracted from the free trade treaty instead of ratification. Furthermore, during his visit to Asia, Trump also took up a position on the bilateral economic relations in his speech delivered at the Summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).[xxxv]


The question arises whether the application of FONOP is effective because the Obama Government was often criticized for not stopping the Chinese aggression and the island-buildings in the region. However, this operation is of strategic importance considering the future of the region. First of all, the Us acts as the world policeman by ensuring freedom of navigation in the region, maintaining peace and order, and representing international law. Second, the presence of the US naval force is reassuring for the allies of the US because in case of a potential conflict they would be there immediately and offers security and balance against China. Third, it has a retarding force against China, which requires thoughtfulness and reasonable action from the emerging Asian country.

The former Administration was mainly criticized for the irregularity and ambiguousness to the FONOP military operation: it was not clear whether they had a political, diplomatic or economic message, which decreased their mediatory ability and legality. After Trump’s inauguration these military operations did not take place for a long time. Finally, after a 214-day break (the longest time between two such military operations) the USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles to the Subi Reef demanded by China,[xxxvi] so that the US can demonstrate that it cannot accept the Chinese demands and finds the building of artificial islands illegal. According to the promises, the military operations will be realized in a larger number, on a wider scale and in a more complex way under the supervision of the US Pacific Command and less under the aegis of the National Security Council. In October 2017 the fourth such military operation was implemented under the presidency of Trump after a period of five months, while Obama started these operations in October 2015 and implemented only four operations in total until October 2016, in a period of one year.[xxxvii]

Conclusion and the current situation

After the 19the Party Congress XiJinping consolidated his power and qualified China as a global power, which practically ended the Deng Xiaoping Principle warning the political leadership to hide their capacities and abstaining from the leading role.[xxxviii] In this spirit another Chinese South China Sea policy emerged, too, consisting of three aspects: military warfare, legal warfare and psychological warfare.[xxxix] Legal warfare means that although China has not acknowledged the judgement passed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in 2016, stating that China’s nine-das line is contrary to the law on the South China Sea, it changed this demand to a “four-dash”, i.e. sisha (四沙) demand, consisting of the Paracel, Pratas and Spratly Islands as well as the Macclesfield coast. This implies a territory narrower than the previous one, and feeds China with hopes for more international legitimization and diplomatic success.[xl] In addition to that, the FONOP operations make it increase its military force in the region and on the artificial islands by deploying military warfare.

The regions of the country are now on the horns of a dilemma: while the US committed itself to foster bilateral economic relations, China advocated global trade and economy. However, China wishes to settle the conflicts arising in the regions such as the South China Sea Conflict by way of bilateral negotiations with the affected countries, as opposed to the US collaboration Therefore, the question arises to the countries whether to choose economy (China) or security (America). It is questionable whether the Rebalance started during the Obama Government  is able to establish a balance in this form, too, because the economic cooperation with China has not only positive aspects. China is able to apply sanctions against the countries in order to enforce the Chinese interest, with the use of psychological warfare, that can easily tip the scales in China’s favor.[xli]

Nevertheless, the US is still stronger and able to preserve its hegemon role, but the Asia-Pacific Region is a key area where it can maintain its global leading role even further in case it is able to build stratagems well. America is supported by its geographical location, the energy issue, the trading interdependence with China and the American dollar.[xlii] Therefore, Trump should elaborate a clear and strategically appropriate policy for the region because he failed to do this during his Asian tour. Although he has become more moderate and been approaching Obama’s policy since the beginnings, power demonstration and the issue of North Korea still play a great part.[xliii]

Author: Alexandra Zoltai


[i]HUANG Jing – BILLO, Andrew (eds.). 2015. pp. 20 – 22. Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea. Navigating Rough Waters. New York, The Palgrave Macmillan.

[ii]BUSZYNSKI, Leszek – ROBERTS, Christopher (eds.). 2015. pp. 24 – 25. The South China Sea Maritime Dispute: Political, Legal and Regional Perspectives. Routledge.

[iii]O’ROURKE, Ronald. 2015. Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service.

[iv]Asia – Pacific Maritime Security Strategy. U. S. Department of Defense, 6.

[v]CLINTON, Hillary. 2011. „America’s Pacific Century.” In Foreign Policy. 11 October 2011.

[vi]KLEMENSITS Péter. 2016. „Rodrigo Duterte „független” külpolitikája: A Fülöp-szigetek átalakuló külkapcsolatai.” PAGEO Geopolitikai Kutatóintézet, 27 December 2016.

[vii]Pivot to Asia

[viii]SAUNDERS, Phillip C. 2013. p. 1. The Rebalance to Asia: U.S.-China Relations and Regional Security. In Strategic Forum, August 2013

[ix]Saunders 2013: 1.

[x]Carter, Ash: The Rebalance and Asia-Pacific Security. In: Foreign Affairs, November/December 2016. pp. 65 – 75.

[xi]Clinton 2011.

[xii]Asia – Pacific Maritime Security Strategy. U. S. Department of Defense

[xiii]Carter 2016.

[xiv]I b

[xv]I b.

[xvi]I b

[xvii]Meeting of ASEAN Defense Ministers, ASEAN Regional Forum, Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum, also with wider forums such as the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which offers a forum to the affected parties for discussing the situaiton.

[xviii]Asia – Pacific Maritime Security Strategy. U. S. Department of Defense

[xix]VIGGO, Peter Jakobsen: „Doomsday Cancelled: Trump is Good News for Allies and World Peace.” In: CSS, 8 March 2017

[xx] Unilateral establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).

[xxi]PANDA, Anakit: Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Secretary of State Nominee, Has a Dangerous Idea for the South China Sea. In: The Diplomat, 12 January 2017.

[xxii] DIAMOND, Jeremy – Bash, Dana: „Trump signs order withdrawing from TPP, reinstate ‘Mexico City policy’ on abortion.” In: CNN, 2017. január 24.

[xxiii] HAPIRO, Jacob L.: US Policy on South China Sea Hasn’t Changed. In: Geopolitical Futures, 7 February 2017.

[xxiv]America First Foreign Policy. In: The White House.

[xxv] I b

[xxvi] PARAMESWARAN, Prashanth: What Mattis’ Shangri-La Dialouge Speech Revealed About Trump’s Asia Policy. In. The Diplomat, 6 June 2017.

[xxvii] U. o.

[xxviii] GREEN, Michael J.:Asia Awaits Trump’s Visit With Trepidation. In: Foreign Policy, 27 October 2017

[xxix] PEEL, Michael – Ramos, Grace: „Philippine banana bonzana sparks debate on shift to China.” In: The Financial Time, 14 March 2017

[xxx] XIE Tao: „How Did China Lose South Korea?” In: The Diplomat, 9 March 2017

[xxxi] GREEN 2017.

[xxxii] SINGH, Vikram – Ford, Lindsey: China Is Looking Forward to Trump’s Truancy at the East Asia Summit. In: Foreign Policy, 27 October 2017

[xxxiii] CRONIN, Patrick M.: Trump’s Post-Pivot Strategy. In: The Diplomat, 11 November 2017

[xxxiv] SINGH, Vikram – Ford, Lindsey: China Is  Looking Forward to Trump’s Truancy at the East Asia Summit. In: Foreign Policy, 27 October 2017

[xxxv] GAO, Charlotte: APEC 2017: Why Trump’s Presidency Is an ’Enermous Gift’ toChina. In: The Diplomat, 11 November 2017

[xxxvi] PANDA, Anakit: The US Navy’s First Trump-Era South China Sea FONOP Just Happened: First Take aways and Analysis. In: The Diplomat, 25 May 2017.

[xxxvii] PHAM, Tuan N.: Time for the US to Stop Losing Ground to China in the South China Sea. In: The Diplomat, 24 October 2017

[xxxviii] U. o.

[xxxix] VALENCIA, Mark J.:China, US Both Using Lawfare in the South China Sea. In: The Diplomat, 12 October 2017

[xl] U. o.

[xli] PARAMESWAEAN, Prashanth: China: New White Paper, Old Asia Conundrum. In: The Diplomat, 4 February 2017.

[xlii] NYE, Joseph: America still holds the aces in its poker game with China. In: Financial Times, 2 November 2017

[xliii] VALENCIA, Mark J.: Trump’s South China Sea policy taking shape. In.: The Japantimes, 23 June 2017

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