President-elect Donald Trump’s unprecedented phone call with Taiwan’s newly-elected president Tsai Ing-wen has a lot to do with Washington’s often complicated military tensions with Beijing. Why? The South China Sea, a disputed swath of ocean of which China claims a majority of territory.
It is true, as Trump mentioned in his tweet, that America sells billions of dollars in arms to Taipei; President Barack Obama approved $1.83 billion in sales to Taiwan in December of 2015, as we pointed out yesterday. Washington has been selling arms to Taipei for more than 30 years. What is different about Trump’s call is that no U.S. president has even spoken to a Taiwanese leader since 1979, when Washington established full diplomatic relations with Beijing. Trump, by the way, says he accepted the call from Taipei and, of course, Taipei says it was arranged ahead of time.
Either way, Washington has an uneasy balancing act to maintain workable relations with China, while securing its military might in the South China Sea with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei—all of whom claim portions of the sea. Given that Beijing boasts the most powerful military of all those competing Asian interests, it is feared that China will monopolize the body of water and all of the trade that comes with it.
So why are they beefing over the South China Sea and what is America’s role in it? The answer is simple: natural resources and trade.
More than $5.3 trillion in trade travels through the South China Sea, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. America makes up $1.2 trillion of that figure. If any conflict were to arise between either of the competing nations claiming certain parts of the sea, it would disrupt cargo delivers and diverted paths could risk billions in lost capital and increased insurance costs.
It is important to note that the U.S. military has deployed a robust showing of destroyers and amphibious assault ships on navigation missions in the South China Sea to contest China’s claim of sovereignty. China has responded in the past by having its own destroyers shadow U.S. ships.