After what U.S. officials said was several months of deliberation among President Donald Trump’s national security team, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently took a rather strident tone towards China in a major speech that came just weeks before Trump’s first state visit to China.
“The United States seeks constructive relations with China, but we will not shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order and where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries and disadvantages the U.S. and our friends,” said Tillerson in a major policy speech on Oct. 18 at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS.)
The remarks, which also hit China’s continuing reclamation in the South China Sea, are seen as a reflection of U.S. impatience that Beijing is not ceasing its aggressive actions in the South China Sea, a crucial trade route for the world’s largest economies.
“China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms” that the United States stands for, added Tillerson.
The top U.S. diplomat’s forceful remarks came as Trump is getting ready to embark on his first travel to Vietnam and the Philippines, two claimants of disputed areas of the South China Sea, attending summit meetings where leaders from Southeast Asia gather.
On Monday, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai pushed back, saying Washington should not try to interfere in regional efforts to resolve disputes in the South China Sea.
In a press briefing, Cui said maybe it would be better for the U.S. to let the regional countries to “find a way of managing the situation.”
South China Sea
For years, the United States has been calling for an expeditious conclusion of an effective and binding Code of Conduct between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the South China Sea.
China has angered four Southeast Asian states by expanding its coast guard and military presence in the South China Sea, a 3.5-million-square-kilometer tract of water rich in fisheries and fuel reserves. Claims by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines overlap that of China, which calls nearly the whole sea its own.
While the United States is not a claimant to the sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, Washington said it is vital to its national interests that various claimants pursue their claims peacefully.
With international attention focused on North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats, tensions in the South China Sea have slipped from the headline in recent months.
Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, told VOA Tuesday “sadly, the South China Sea will get very little bandwidth during Trump's trip to Asia — one clear way of how China benefits form North Korea’s recent missile and nuclear advances.”
Positions to fill before trip
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is preparing to fill positions that focus on Asia policy, as the U.S. president departs for East Asia.
The Senate recently confirmed the appointment of Daniel Krintenbrink, a career diplomat, as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.
Another highly-anticipated nomination is Randall Schriver, a well-respected China hawk, who was tapped last week for the top Asia policy job at the Pentagon. Trump announced his intent to nominate Schriver as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs.
Schriver has advocated for a strong U.S.-Japan alliance and high-level engagement with Taiwan, which he said “serves the U.S. national interests and values.” Schriver also has argued the political and security environment in East and Southeast Asia has changed a great deal since 1979, the year that Washington broke diplomatic ties with Taipei and recognized Beijing.
“Taiwan is a full-fledged democracy and willing security partner to the United States. China’s assertiveness threatens peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea,” said Schriver.
China claims democratically ruled Taiwan is part of its territory and has never renounced the use of military force to bring the island under Beijing’s control.
In a letter to Trump on Oct. 26, co-chairs of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus voiced the importance of a value-based strategic partnership with Taiwan.
“Taiwan is one of our closest allies in the region, and congressional support of Taiwan remains strong and bipartisan. Our two peoples share many of the same values, and a commitment to democracy and the rule of law,” said Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, who serves in the House Committee on Appropriations along with fellow Republican Gregg Harper and Democrats Albio Sires and Gerry Connolly.
Krintenbrink named U.S. ambassador to Vietnam
Former White House National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Affairs Daniel Krintenbrink was confirmed last Thursday as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.
Krintenbrink told Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a nomination hearing that one of the U.S. policy priorities is to strengthen maritime security cooperation with Vietnam and to “resist coercion” in the disputed South China Sea.
Wilder, who worked at the White House National Security Council for former President George W. Bush, said it was important to have Krintenbrink confirmed before Trump’s visit there.
“The president's trip to East Asia, the longest trip to East Asia by any U.S. president that I remember, will go a long way to addressing the incorrect notion some have had that the United States is withdrawing from the region,” said Wilder, adding “the new commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific Region shows just how committed the U.S. is to this whole area of the globe.”
Mapping the U.S. strategy from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, a senior State Department official recently laid out Washington’s vision to deepen security cooperation with three other democratic allies: Japan, Australia, and India.
China, a non-democratic society, was not in U.S.’ strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.
In response, Chinese Ambassador Cui said on Monday, “I don't think any attempts to form exclusive clubs in the region” would help anybody.