Taiwan and the South China Sea Must Be Taken Off the Back Burner

    Paul J. Leaf

    Security, Asia

    Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waves as she boards Hai Lung-class submarine (SS-794) during her visit to a navy base in Kaohsiung, Taiwan March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

    Optimism on trade with China and talks with North Korea are causing Washington to lose focus on other issues.

    The United States recently focused its efforts in Asia on improving trade with China and securing a denuclearization agreement with North Korea. While Washington correctly prioritized these important goals, it appears to be neglecting other pressing regional issues. These other issues include China’s increasing militarization of man-made islands in the contested South China Sea and its growing aggression towards Taiwan. The trouble is that these regional problems are interconnected, with Chinese gains on certain issues potentially irreversible. What this means is that the U.S. cannot myopically focus on only two of the many challenges it faces in Asia.

    Following President Trump’s election, America has shown signs of taking tough positions on a range of security issues in Asia. For instance, consider the following examples:

    First, Trump added $ 15 billion to his predecessor’s last military budget and proposed a ten percent increase in defense spending for the next year. In addition, much of this additional funding would bolster America’s missile defense and naval presence in Asia. In its first National Security Strategy (NSS), the Trump administration also called China a “revisionist power” and “strategic competitor.” Moreover, the NSS also pledged to halt China from remaking Asia in its favor, whereas the Obama administration emphasized cooperating with China.

    Second, in January 2017, then Secretary of State nominee Tillerson declared that China should be denied access to the islands it has manufactured in the South China Sea. A third of the globe’s maritime traffic traverses those waters, where five countries plus China have competing claims. In 2017, Washington executed four freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) to contest Beijing’s territorial claims in those waters. In eight years, the Obama administration conducted only six FONOPs there.

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