US Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrives to testify on the Defense Department budget at a House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 15, 2017. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump gave China a break in April on its tightening of control over Asia’s most hotly disputed sea. But the leeway that has allowed China and the United States to work together on containing North Korea shows signs of expiring. The two superpowers may still tag-team over North Korea for a while, but Trump is expected to start upping pressure against Beijing so it stops assuming it can take full rein over the South China Sea.

China’s claims to the resource-rich, 3.5 million-square-kilometer tract of water off its south coast overlap those of militarily weaker Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Some of those governments looked to the United States for help under former-president Barack Obama. But now Washington is more distant, and those countries are tilting toward China, which has consecrated its maritime power partly by offering them aid, trade and investment in exchange for muting any protest, per the view of political scientists. China is almost done landfilling a series of pivotal islets so it can park combat aircraft and radar systems, as well, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and Investment Studies.

When U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis meet Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi for an initial security dialogue Wednesday in Washington, the two sides are expected at least to touch on the issue.

“The South China Sea will be an issue high on the agenda, or at least from the U.S. perspective,” says Yun Sun, senior associate with the East Asia Program under Washington-based think tank the Stimson Center. “China is likely to see the South China Sea as less of a problem today given its improved relations with Manila, but it remains a key concern for Washington.”

A file photograph showing an island that China built on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Manila handed Washington a classic case of how China has turned Southeast Asia to its favor. The Philippines asked a world arbitration court in 2015 to rule against China, and in July last year it did: Beijing, it said, lacks a legal basis for its claims to some 90% of the sea. Since then, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has made friends with China, putting the maritime sovereignty dispute on hold as Manila receives aid and investment from the other side. The Philippines for its part is on a push to improve infrastructure and China’s good at that.

The United States doesn’t want China to get too much of a hold over Southeast Asia. An expansionist Beijing goes against the long-standing U.S. interest in keeping at least a geopolitical balance between the two powers (China would say the same for the United States). Washington wants the South China Sea open for free commercial navigation, too. About $5 trillion worth of trade passes through its shipping lanes every year.

A so-called “freedom of navigation operation” passage in late May by a U.S. naval vessel in the South China Sea came despite Chinese objections as one sign that the U.S. government is raising pressure. Earlier this month Mattis said he anticipated friction between China and the United States. “The scope and effect of China’s construction activities in the South China Sea differ from those in other countries in several key ways,” the Department of Defense quotes him saying June 3. “This includes the nature of its militarization, China’s disregard for international law, its contempt for other nations’ interests, and its efforts to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues.”

The USS Carl Vinson (pictured here in May, 2017) leads a significant U.S. military presence in Asia. (Photo by Z.A. Landers/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

What about North Korea? You might expect Trump’s people to keep downplaying the South China Sea matter so Beijing stays happy and works with them on throttling the mysterious and potentially dangerous Kim Jong-un regime. North Korea will inevitably come up at this week’s dialogue, a process established in April when Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida, analysts say. This dialogue, as a first in a potential series, will probably be more pro forma than substantive, observers say. But once the two sides dive deeper, cooperation might be nuked into a standoff. U.S. officials worry for one thing that China is letting North Korea get around economic sanctions by using its own procurement supply chain to get financing from Chinese banks, I have reported.

“There might be some general commitment to Korean denuclearization, but Beijing won’t do anything consequential on that front, as it wants to keep North Korea around more than it disapproves of Pyongyang’s nukes,” says Sean King, senior vice president of New York political consultancy Park Strategies. “Hopefully, (the U.S. government) has put Xi on notice that we’re moving toward secondary sanctions against the mainland Chinese entities and banks that are fronting for North Korea if he doesn’t take real action.”

With that bold new approach to China over North Korea, Trump has little to lose by adding pressure on Beijing over the South China Sea.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphjennings/2017/06/19/after-a-break-beijing-must-fear-the-u-s-again-over-south-china-sea-expansion/#4745d68d76b5

Related:

(Contains links to previous related articles)

.
.
.
.

FILE photo provided by Filipino fisherman Renato Etac —  A Chinese Coast Guard boat approaches Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Scarborough Shoal has always been part of the Philippines, by international law. China says it is happy to control fishing in the South China Sea. Credit: Renato Etac

No automatic alt text available.

.

(Contains links to previous related articles)

No automatic alt text available.
For about five years China has been loudly proclaiming “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea.” China has said, everything north of the “nine dash line” shown here, essentially, belongs to China.  On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said China’s “nine dash line” was not recognized under international law.