Beyond North Korea: Why Trump Needs to Focus on the South China Sea and Terrorism

Beyond North Korea: Why Trump Needs to Focus on the South China Sea and Terrorism

One presidential trip will not solve these problems, but President Trump can begin to set the stage for a more robust and effective U.S. approach.

With Donald Trump heading to Vietnam and the Philippines this month, I’ve written about the administration’s approach to Southeast Asia thus far and what an economic agenda for the region might look like. In that first piece, I argued that the president should describe a comprehensive vision for the region. On the security front in particular, the United States should strive to shape a Southeast Asia that is at peace with itself and its neighbors and in which states can resist external coercion.

Southeast Asia faces myriad security challenges, but two are particularly pressing: the South China Sea and terrorism. One presidential trip to the region will not solve these problems, but President Trump can begin to set the stage for a more robust and effective U.S. approach.

The South China Sea

China has incurred only limited costs for its destabilizing behavior in the South China Sea. Going forward, the United States should seek to deter China from additional island building; from deploying significant military forces to its new “islands”; from harassing foreign military and fishing vessels operating in the sea; and from threatening, and of course using, force against its neighbors (as Beijing did to Hanoi this past summer).

There are a number of ways to begin enhancing such deterrence. In his visit to Beijing, President Trump should make clear to Xi Jinping that the Chinese president’s insistence that the South China Sea does not concern the United States is falling on deaf ears. Trump should personally convey to Xi that Washington has a direct and enduring interest in the South China Sea. He should then explain that Beijing will face consequences for further malfeasance. In particular, President Trump might explain that the United States is considering a number of possible actions should China seize more territory, engage in more dredging, or deploy military forces to reclaimed land. Such actions might include:

- a moratorium on education visas for family members of senior government officials and business leaders;

- the suspension of EB-5 investor visa approvals for Chinese applicants;

- offers of amnesty for targets of China’s Operation Foxhunt;

- sanctions on companies involved in dredging and construction on South China Sea features;

- a State Department study on the feasibility of establishing a U.S. representative office in Dharamsala, home to the Tibetan government-in-exile, similar to the one in Taipei;

- joint U.S. Coast Guard patrols with their Southeast Asian counterparts.

Options abound. The United States has plenty of leverage it could put to use vis-à-vis China, should it choose to do so, both inside and outside the South China Sea.

Enhancing U.S. military posture in the South China Sea is likewise important to shaping Chinese decision making. This year, the U.S. Navy is on pace to average about two ships in the sea on any given day. Given the size of the sea and the extent of Chinese ambitions, this is simply not sufficient to give Beijing considerable pause. To sustain greater U.S. military presence in the South China Sea, new permanent or rotational basing arrangements may be needed.

Vietnam would be an ideal site for such a new arrangement given its location on the sea’s western reaches and its own fraught relationship with China. To be sure, Vietnam’s “Three Nos”—no military alliances; no foreign bases; no reliance on one country to combat another—are a substantial hindrance here. But judging from Vietnamese actions rather than words—for example, opening Cam Ranh Bay to port visits from foreign naval vessels—commitment to the “Three Nos” seems to be weakening.

It seems likely that President Trump, while in Vietnam, will announce an agreement to have an aircraft carrier visit the country next spring for the first time since the Vietnam War. In meetings with President Tran, Trump should push for implementation of the previously reached deal to preposition U.S. military supplies for humanitarian relief in Da Nang. The American president should also press Tran for an agreement on upgrading the annual U.S.-Vietnam Naval Engagement Activity to a combined exercise. Donald Trump is not going to depart Hanoi with an invitation to base a destroyer squadron at Cam Ranh Bay, but any progress in tightening security ties and weakening the “Three Nos” should be considered a success.

The Philippines would also seem an obvious choice, given the treaty alliance and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, to host a new complement of U.S. naval vessels in the South China Sea.  Rodrigo Duterte, however, has proved to be a wild card in the relationship and sought to distance the Philippines from the United States during his first year as president. That being said, his approach to Washington has softened in recent months—due in part to the transition from Obama to Trump and in part to American aid during the battle for Marawi—and the Philippine defense secretary recently announced an expansion of bilateral military exercises in 2018.

President Duterte, not without reason, has complained that the United States did little to halt Chinese depredations in the South China Sea. President Trump should tell him, point blank, that if Duterte wants more effective American support and assistance going forward, he’ll have to step up to facilitate it.

As the United States works towards enhancing its own presence in the South China Sea, it should focus parallel efforts—in conjunction with its extra-regional allies—on building partner capacity. Littoral states should have capabilities enabling them to effectively monitor their territorial seas and exclusive economic zones (EEZs). They should likewise field maritime and air assets with which they can defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. No state in the region can match China ship-for-ship or plane-for-plane, but even a minimal capability can be enough to make China think twice about coercive action, especially when seen against the backdrop of renewed American presence.

To that end, American announcements of the provision of additional patrol vessels, maritime patrol aircraft, or coastal radars to Vietnam and the Philippines would be welcome. Should a meeting of the “quad” partners—the United States, Japan, Australia and India—come off on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, as looks increasingly likely, coordinating their security assistance to Southeast Asia should be on the agenda.


The Armed Forces of the Philippines have been successful in the battle for Marawi, but this may simply mark the end of the beginning in a new phase for terrorism in Southeast Asia. It is impossible to know if the Marawi siege could have been avoided had Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P), which wound down in 2014, continued. At the very least, were the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) still in place, the United States would have had five to six times as many special operators on the ground in the southern Philippines (the United States has maintained approximately 100 in-country since the mission’s close), who would have had more resources to bring to bear and been in position to advise and assist at both the operational and tactical level. There were good reasons in 2014 to think that the Philippines was ready to handle the counterterror mission in the south on its own, but that has proved not to be the case. During his stay in Manila, reestablishing a named operation in the southern Philippines should be a priority for President Trump.

Unfortunately, Southeast Asia’s terror threat is not limited to the Philippines alone.

Indonesia has seen its own uptick in violence and a number of Indonesians, along with other foreigners, are known to have participated in the battle for Marawi. Replicating OEF-P in Indonesia might seem appealing, but it is unlikely. Indonesia is fiercely protective of its sovereignty and, despite extensive and effective U.S. support for Detachment 88 (Indonesia’s counterterror police unit) since the early 2000s, the Indonesian security establishment remains distrustful of the United States.

Despite this, there is a role for U.S. Special Forces to play in Indonesia, and Kopassus (Indonesia’s special forces) is almost certainly open to joint training initiatives. On the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, President Trump should seek out a meeting with Duterte and Indonesian President Joko Widodo to discuss bringing together U.S. Special Forces, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Kopassus, and Detachment 88 for a series of training activities in the southern Philippines. Such a program would bring together U.S. SOF units and the Philippine units with which they operated most closely during OEF-P—the Light Reaction Regiment, the Joint Special Operations Group and the Naval Special Operations Group—to train and engage in exchanges with Kopassus and Detachment 88 operatives. Classroom sessions would focus on lessons learned during the fourteen years of OEF-P and on the importance of civil-military relations and information operations; in many ways, these pillars of the OEF-P mission were at least as important as the advise and assist role that US SOF played. Mutual exchanges of intelligence on local militant networks and cultural idiosyncrasies would benefit both Philippine and Indonesian forces responding to threats in porous border regions and would especially benefit U.S. special operators, who are likely to have less direct experience with Indonesian terrorists.