As the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump settles into its first week in office, it’s run into no shortage of controversy. From sparking some of the largest — if not the largest — rounds of protest in American history, to spouting easily debunked claims on inauguration turnout, Trump’s first few days appeared to be a continuation of both his campaign and post-election push, marrying conspiracy with questions about what comes next.
As it pertains to disputed territories abroad, however, Trump’s team wasted little time in staking its claims. On Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told American media that the United States will take appropriate measures to make sure international territory in the South China Sea remains just that: international. Speaking on the territorial questions in the region, Spicer said, “It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”
In a sense, Spicer’s comments — which noted that the United States “is going to make sure that we protect our interests there”- – weren’t altogether surprising. Not only has Trump notably ratcheted up American rhetoric toward constraining Chinese interests, but, a few days prior, presumptive Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even lobbed the possibility of barring China outright from accessing the islands in question. “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” Tillerson told U.S. senators, all but endorsing an anti-Beijing blockade. (As Yahoo reported, Chinese media responded to Tillerson’s comments by noting that “unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish.”)
As it is, the Trump team’s approach to territorial integrity in the South China Sea — and to Beijing’s territorial expansionism — presents a stark contrast to Trump’s views on revanchism in Europe. As Crossroads Asia detailed earlier this month, Trump has displayed a discernible willingness to not simply support Moscow’s foreign policy, but to go so far as to open the door to recognizing the Kremlin’s claims in Crimea. It would, of course, be one thing to offer blanket recognitions for revanchist claims, from Sarajevo to the Spratlys — but Trump appears willing to allow certain irredentist claims to outweigh others.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the United States would remain in the distinct minority if he goes through with recognizing Russia’s claims in Crimea. But if Washington remains unwilling to recognize Beijing’s sovereignty within the South China Sea, it would refrain from joining the minority of nations backing China’s claims. In addition to the handful of countries who’ve supported both Beijing’s and Moscow’s expansionism — including Afghanistan, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan — China has also enjoyed the support, as The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda noted, of states like Gambia and Vanuatu. Likewise, despite claims by Chinese officials that 66 countries offered support, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative found a total of only 31 countries who’d “publicly voiced support for Beijing’s position[.]” More than Russia regarding its Crimean claims, to be sure, but a far cry from any kind of widespread support – although that doesn’t necessarily mean support for any kind of American blockade will necessarily follow.