On 21 November, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Regan docked in Hong Kong just days after a fly-over near the South China Sea by B-52H bombers.
Given Beijing rejected a docking request from the US Navy in September this event demonstrates that there remains open lines of communication, particularly at the military level. A lieutenant general from China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army was a guest aboard the USS Ronald Reagan as she sailed through the South China Sea enroute to Hong Kong.
The freedom of navigation operations (FONOP’s) conducted by the US Navy will continue for the foreseeable future. On 28 November, the US Navy also sailed USS Stockdale and the USNS Pecos through the Taiwan Strait, the third such operation in 2018. The Trump administration is keen to continue the show of US naval power in concert with the protracted trade war. US National Security Advisor John Bolton has stated that the United States will step up engagement and increase patrols in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, on 2 December Presidents’ Trump and Xi formally met on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Argentina with the on-going trade war between the two nations top of the agenda. Importantly, the US has agreed to hold the existing tariff rate on USD 200 billion worth of goods from China at 10 percent, and remove the threat of additional tariffs on USD 267 billion worth of goods, on the proviso that China agrees to import “significant amounts” of US agricultural, energy and industrial products. The two leaders also agreed to commence discussions addressing, inter alia, forced technology transfers and intellectual property protection, major sources of the Trump administration’s ire.
For Vietnam, these exercises are welcome as Hanoi attempts to strike a balance between nurturing its relationship with Beijing and simultaneously internationalising the SCS issue without aggravating China. To this end Hanoi has strengthened relationships with other regional powers such as India and Russia.