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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


South China Sea: Can Trump
Chew Gum and Walk at the
Same Time?
Carlyle A. Thayer
April 4, 2017
[client name deleted]
We request your assessment on the Trump Administration's approach to the South
China Sea, including the decision to refrain from any freedom of navigation patrols.
What is the impact in the region and how American allies might react?
ANSWER: The Trump Administration cant chew gum and walk at the same time in
dealing with China. Working with China to manage the North Korean crisis and dealing
with Chinese assertiveness and militarization of the South China Sea are threats to
regional security that must be dealt with simultaneously. They are not transactional
issues that is, the US concedes the South China Sea to China in exchange for Chinese
cooperation on the North Korean nuclear proliferation issue.
When Admiral Harry Harris gave testimony to Congress recently he hinted at a
resumption of freedom of navigation operational patrols or FONOPS. Then came
reports that the Pentagon nixed three proposed FONOPS in February and March. This
was before the North Korean crisis. In late April, ASEAN was scheduled to hold a
summit in Manila. Just prior to the ASEAN Summit ASEAN senior foreign affairs officials
went to Washington to lobby the Trump Administration. In my view this led to the
invitations to the heads of government of the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand to
visit Donald Trump in The White House.
The US decision not to conduct more assertive FONOPS sent a clear message to ASEAN
that they could not count on the US to counter-balance China. The Chairmans
Statement after the ASEAN Summit saw ASEANs previous concern about land
reclamation and militarization deleted so as not to offend China. In sum the South
China Sea is now Chinas lake.
Xi Jinpings strategy towards the United States during the Obama Administration, now
the Trump Administration, has been to offer cooperation on global issues such as non-
proliferation while at the same time linking this to US recognition of Chinas core
interests including the South China Sea. After just over one hundred days in office
strategic uncertainty continues to cloud U.S.-Southeast Asian relations. President
Trumps reluctance to confront China over the South China Sea is, in part, a product
of his failure to appoint senior officials to the State and Defense Departments. As a
result, the Trump Administration has a myopic strategic view rather than a
comprehensive strategic view.
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Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, South China Sea: Can Trump Chew Gum and
Walk at the Same Time?, Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, April 4, 2017. All
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.