Since last year’s surprising election of Donald Trump, Beijing has looked to up the stakes and increase its leverage in the disputed South China Sea. This past December, China seized a U.S. Navy unmanned underwater vehicle near the Philippines. The seizure was made outside of Beijing’s expansive and ambiguous “nine-dash line.” While the drone was eventually returned to Washington, the incident reveals a new level of mistrust and strategic rivalry between China and the United States. It has also further colored the water amid growing uncertainty on the future trajectory of Sino-U.S. relations under the coming Trump administration.
Beijing is looking to adapt on the fly to the new team in Washington, which has a frenetic, and uncertain, foreign policy direction toward China and the region. On one hand, Beijing was cautiously cheering the defeat of Hillary Clinton—as it worried the former presidential favorite would enact a tougher line toward bilateral relations. Beijing also watched gleefully as Trump repeatedly castigated allies in the region—especially archrival Japan—for not paying their fair share of the burden for U.S. security guarantees. Trump’s denouncement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was icing on the cake as Obama’s rebalance policy—largely viewed in a containment lens in Beijing—suffered a crushing body blow.
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