Last month, a Philippine lawmaker released photos he said showed Chinese fishing, coast guard and navy vessels surrounding a Philippine-occupied isle in the Spratly island chain, preventing planned repairs to a runway. Vietnam in July halted drilling in an area leased to Spain’s Repsol S.A, amid reports it did so under Chinese duress.
The incidents suggest China is taking advantage of a perceived U.S. vacuum on Southeast Asia under President Donald Trump, whose administration has focused on Chinese trade tensions and North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests.
While the U.S. is still doing what it calls “freedom of navigation” naval operations in the South China Sea, testing China’s claims to exclusive access — it plans to conduct two to three such maneuvers in the next few months, according to the Wall Street Journal — and a rear admiral publicly chiding Beijing for its behavior, the intensity of its actions and statements on the waters has faded since Trump took office.
Doubts over the future of U.S. commitment could leave some Southeast Asian states reluctant to publicly challenge China on their own. The risk is that while the U.S. is occupied further north, China expands its presence in the South China Sea in a way that becomes impossible to unwind, giving it the strategic advantage over time.
“China knows that Trump is very focused on North Korea, and not too worried about Southeast Asia,” said Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines. “There is a willingness on their part to push things as far as they can.”