As recently as July 2016, it looked as if conflict could erupt between the United States, China, and possibly some smaller Asian nations over Beijing’s belligerent drive to transform the South China Sea into a “Chinese lake.” That month, the already fraught situation became far more volatile when the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled against some of China’s territorial claims in the area, after which China vowed to use “all necessary measures” to safeguard its control of the region.
But now, despite the Trump administration’s decision on May 24 to conduct a naval action in the region, it is clear that China has emerged from this dispute victorious. The South China Sea—the vast, resource-rich region through which a third of global maritime commerce flows—is now the de facto territory of Beijing.
“It is, unfortunately, now game over,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Center for a New American Security.
This “unfortunate” turn of the tides reveals America’s fading influence, China’s rising power (and increasing shrewdness about how to effectively use that power), and that the smaller Asian states are pragmatic and circumspect about these shifts.
With his much-vaunted “Pivot to Asia,” former President Barack Obama had sought to revive U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific. The plan relied heavily on Washington increasing cooperation with its Asian allies and partners, in large part to contain China and to protect those nations from Beijing’s domineering presence in the region.
But in 2013, when China began building artificial islands in the South China Sea at locations well inside the legal maritime territory of U.S. partner nations such as the Philippines, the United States issued only token chastisements of Beijing.
China calculated carefully and continued to make advances small and gradual enough to fall under the threshold of any robust reaction.
Then, despite initial pledges not to militarize its artificial islets and atolls, China began developing harbors, airfields, radar arrays and advanced defense systems on them. It deployed warplanes and weaponry to them.
This militarized island infrastructure extends China’s naval capabilities in the region and allows Beijing to reinforce its infamous “nine-dash line” claim to nearly the entire South China Sea.
The Obama administration responded to the militarization by conducting naval actions that it labeled freedom of navigation operations (fonops). Their purpose was to demonstrate to the world that America didn’t need China’s permission to enter the waters near the artificial islands.
But the actions were viewed as weak-willed. Some military analysts said they fell short of being actual fonops, and could only be called “innocent passage” activities. Critics said these actions failed to address the larger question of whether or not China’s man-made islands earned Beijing any legitimate claim to the waters surrounding them.
In either case, these naval actions did little to reassure America’s Asian partners that the U.S. would have their backs if they stood up to China’s illegal activities in the South China Sea. As the months went by, it appeared to the U.S.’s partner nations that there either was no pivot to Asia, or that a major aspect of that pivot entailed Washington appeasing Beijing.
An Empty Edict
Then in July came the ruling from the court at The Hague. It said China’s artificial features did not qualify as actual islands and, as such, could not give China claim to the 12 nautical miles of “territorial sea” around them. The ruling represented a blow to China, and a victory particularly for the Philippines. But still the Obama Administration chose not to reinforce this judgment by conducting a true fonop. Instead, the U.S. Navy held another “innocent passage” action.
The leadership in the Philippines realized that without American backing, the court ruling meant little. Thus, Manila decided not to acknowledge its win. “One of the considerations driving Manila’s backdown from pressing its legal victory was a sense that Washington was distracted and that there was no certainty that the U.S. would come to the defense of the Philippines, whatever the treaty guarantees,” the Australian Strategic Policy Institute wrote on May 24.
Other Asian nations, unsure about America and fearful of Beijing, followed Manila’s lead. They made little or no mention of the landmark court ruling.
Meanwhile, China unexpectedly altered its approach, substituting saber ratting and aggressive posturing for an emphasis on soft power tactics. Suddenly, China was proposing bilateral maritime security deals to several of its neighbors, tempering its rhetoric about owning the entire South China Sea, and even pledging to publish a code of conduct for the region—a move Beijing had been hindering since the mid-2000s.
Nations like the Philippines and Vietnam played along. But China’s substitution of the stick for the carrot didn’t actually deceive any of the parties about Beijing’s true intentions. The softened approach only made clear that China felt that it had already essentially won the de facto control of the South China Sea that it had long been seeking. Beijing calculated that since the U.S. had given in, there was no need to keep behaving so aggressively.
Enter President Trump
The election of Donald Trump in the U.S. gave rise to new hope. American defense officials and several of Washington’s Asian partners were optimistic that the U.S. would take a more hawkish stance toward China. After all, Mr. Trump had campaigned on being tougher toward Beijing.
But Trump’s intention to confront Beijing about militarizing the South China Sea was soon overshadowed by his need for China to help pressure North Korea over its illegal weapons programs. Early in his presidency, this order of priorities even prompted Trump to turn down three separate requests from the U.S. military to carry out South China Sea fonops.
Quartz’s Steve Mollman said this all meant that “for Beijing, North Korea’s saber rattling does serve one useful purpose: It distracts attention from the contested South China Sea. … Now, thanks largely to North Korea, the [South China Sea] issue has faded into the background—just as China might have hoped.”
On May 24, news broke that the Trump administration had finally conducted a naval operation in the South China Sea, and that it was a true fonop. It occurred within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, one of the most heavily fortified of China’s artificial islands. This seemed to be a promising sign. “[I]t underscores the message that Mischief Reef is not an island, and therefore does not merit a claim to exerting territorial waters,” the Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng wrote.
But the measure was too little, too late to represent an actual check on China’s aggression in the region.
Foreign Policy called the move “belated.” Stratfor said despite the bolder nature of the operation, it was basically a “return to the status quo” after a seven-month hiatus in U.S. naval actions.
It is possible that President Trump will order more fonops, and that South China Sea tensions could rise again. But as the North Korean threat intensifies, Trump’s desperation to cooperate with China in order to contain Pyongyang will continue to hinder his taking meaningful actions against Beijing. Whether the Trump administration conducts more fonops or not, China is unlikely to be deterred from its present course.
In the year that has passed since that landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, the Chinese have learned that it is unlikely to be challenged in a meaningful way over the South China Sea. China knows that its strengthened position in the region means it can continue to emphasize soft power and thereby gain even more influence over the smaller Asian states. China has learned that, partly thanks to North Korea’s distracting belligerence, the South China Sea now essentially belongs to Beijing.