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U.S. Expected to Increase Pressure on China Over South China Sea Expansion

U.S. President Donald Trump has been going easy on China over its increasing control over the South China Sea. That leeway had allowed China and the U.S. to work together on containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. However, Trump is now expected to start increasing pressure on Beijing in order to curb its expansionist moves in Asia’s most disputed sea.

China’s claims to the South China Sea overlap those of Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Some of those governments had sought help from the U.S. to contain China’s expansion into the South China Sea. However, now that Washington is drawing away, China is moving in with “checkbook diplomacy,” offering aid, trade, and investment in exchange for alliances.

When U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis meet Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi for a security meeting Wednesday in Washington, D.C., the parties are expected to at least touch on the South China Sea issue.

The U.S. wants the sea open for free commercial navigation and made that point by conducting a “freedom of navigation” operation in late May. Analysts see this move as one sign that Washington is going to start taking a tighter stand against Chinese expansionist plans.

Another issue that will probably come up in Wednesday’s meeting is North Korea. U.S. officials are concerned that China is letting North Korea skirt economic sanctions by using its own procurement supply chain to get financing from Chinese banks. The discussion, the first in a series, will likely not result in anything substantive, observers say.

“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,” said 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.”

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