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Trump change ‘points to calmer waters’ on South China Sea horizon

The transition to a new administration in Washington and stronger ties between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations are expected to calm waters in the troubled South China Sea in the near term, observers said.

Following Republican Donald Trump’s win in last week’s US presidential election, the present US administration headed by Barack Obama is expected to focus on domestic concerns and might not take tough action in the disputed waters, the analysts said.

The recent warming in ties between China and some of the South China Sea’s other claimants had also lowered tensions.

Wu Shicun, head of the government-affiliated National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the transition would be a period of calm. “Before the next US president comes into power, the South China Sea will be at least temporarily peaceful,” Wu said.

Tensions over the waters have escalated over the years, with the Philippines taking the dispute to an international tribunal in The Hague, and Beijing condemning US freedom of navigation operations in the area.

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In July, the tribunal rejected Beijing’s historical claims to the South China Sea. Beijing has refused to recognise the ruling but ties between China and several claimant states have warmed since the Hague decision.

After Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s first trip to China late last month, Manila said China relaxed restrictions on fishing in the contested Scarborough Shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island.

And Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s talks with Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing this month yielded a joint commitment to deepen cooperation on defence and in the South China Sea. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc also visited Beijing in September, mending ties frayed by the ­dispute.

Observers said the tribunal’s ruling had helped ease tensions in the area.

Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs on the White House’s National Security Council, said China had taken a different tack with parties in the region since the Hague decision.

“For how long is unclear, but there has been a change in attitude,” Cha said. “This change in Beijing coincides with greater hedging by countries in the region given the uncertainties of the election in the US. Whenever the US goes into an election cycle as uncertain as this one, there is a natural tendency for countries in the region to hedge.”

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But confrontation between China and the United States over the maritime disputes could still erupt after Trump assumes office in January. Trump’s advisers have said the US will still pivot to the Asia-Pacific, but that Washington has diverse interests.

Former British admiral Anthony Rix said an isolationist approach by Trump would be inconsistent with his pledge to “make America great again”.

“I believe that America will continue to monitor developments in the South China Sea, while upholding the rule of law through freedom of navigation patrols and other channels,” Rix said. “I would not be surprised to see an even sharper US focus on the South China Sea with possibly more frequent patrols.”