China has been benefiting from North Korea's weapons tests and threats toward the United States lately.
You see, the Hermit Kingdom's increasing aggression tactics – including its possible detonation of a hydrogen bomb last Saturday (Aug. 2) – has drawn Uncle Sam's focus so completely in recent months that U.S. involvement in other Pacific maritime disputes has all but failed.
We're talking about the South China Sea.
If you've been following along with us, you'll know that China has laid claim to an enormous swath of the South China Sea, known as the "nine-dash line," ignoring six governments' claims as well as an international ruling from the Hague Tribunal.
And Uncle Sam's distraction is good news for Beijing's excessive maritime claims.
Here's what we mean…
China's New Approach: Out with the Old Tricks, In with the New
While America has been pressuring China to sanction North Korea, it has all but ignored China's recent actions in the South China Sea.
Since April 11, U.S. President Donald Trump has tweeted about China 16 times. Each tweet has mentioned China's attempts (and failures) to curtail the Hermit Kingdom's missile program, and not a single one has addressed its actions in the South China Sea.
In these tweets, Trump has hinted that he will be more willing to strike better trade deals with China if it helps disarm North Korea. But if the United States won't pay attention to developments in the South China Sea, it may lose the leverage needed to strike any kind of trade deal at all.
You see, China has found new ways to gain diplomatic ground in the South China Sea while America has been focusing on Beijing's relationship with Pyongyang. In addition to its "old tricks," China's tried a few new ones in its efforts to gain total sovereignty over the resource- and trade-rich waters…
China's old tricks:
- Continued construction of artificial islands in the disputed waters.
- Threats to Vietnam and India over their respective oil drilling projects in the region (at the risk of an attack on their bases should they fail to comply).
- Prolonged demands that countries within the nine-dash line not claim sovereignty over parts within. China most recently directed such a demand at Indonesia for its decision to rename part of the region the "North Natuna Sea."
China's new tricks:
- Economic deals.
Beijing also offered Malaysia $17.7 billion on Aug. 9 to subsidize a joint rail link project, touted as the most expensive infrastructure venture under China's ambitious "Belt and Road" initiative.
- Wearing the "little guys" thin.
Other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)countries have stopped fighting Beijing altogether – such as Malaysia and Taiwan. Malaysia has suffered intense internal strife, making a tussle with the world's largest country virtually impossible.
Taiwan has struggled with diplomatic in-fighting as well — thanks to China in particular. After President Tsai Ing-wen's election last year, China cut off all contacts with the Taiwanese government.
This, in turn, had a devastating economic impact on the small nation and caused Tsai's approval rating to plummet to just 33%, reported The San Francisco Chronicle on Sept. 4. Now, Taiwan too has given up the South China Sea fight in order to seek better relations with Beijing instead.
Overall, China's new "promise money or pressure" maneuvers could ostensibly replace its long-utilized strong-arm tactics – the old tricks – in the South China Sea.
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And, for the nine-dash-line countries involved, China does seem to make for a more useful diplomatic cohort these days than the United States, which has done little in recent months to reassure them of its loyalty and protection. Indeed, the most we've seen from America in this region is a joint statement on Aug. 6 with Japan and Australia calling for Beijing to abide by a South China Sea "code of conduct."
And after China completely ignored the Hague ruling in the Philippines' favor last year, a code of conduct seems laughably inadequate.
What's more, its nine-dash-line neighbors didn't press the matter further – more evidence of the countries' collective "change of heart."
Overall, this change of heart in the South Pacific could very well indicate Washington's slow but steady exclusion from the region.
Here's what that might look like…