WASHINGTON • More than 100 days into the Donald Trump presidency, no US Navy ship has gone within 12 nautical miles of any of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, Pentagon officials said.
A request by the United States Pacific Command six weeks ago for a warship to sail within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, a reef claimed by China and the Philippines, was turned down.
The decision not to challenge China's territorial claims shows a remarkable deference towards Beijing from an administration that is increasingly turning towards Chinese President Xi Jinping for help amid the escalating crisis in the Korean peninsula.
It remained unclear whether it was Defence Secretary James Mattis, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or one of their deputies who turned down the request and two others by the Navy in February. Defence officials said the White House was not involved.
Mr Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the US at the Wilson Centre, said: "All of the language, combined with the fact that the Republican foreign policy establishment had been critical of (Barack) Obama for not carrying out enough Fonops (freedom of navigation operations), means there was a wide expectation that Trump would put down a marker early. And that hasn't happened."
The simmering crisis in North Korea seems to have changed the Trump administration's earlier assumptions on how to handle China. Mr Trump campaigned on being tough on Beijing, promising to label China a currency manipulator and to go after it on trade. But as North Korea accelerated its provocative behaviour in the past three months, attempting nine missile launches on six occasions since Mr Trump came to power, his administration has adopted a more conciliatory air with Beijing as he seeks help to rein in Pyongyang.
With each missile launch, Mr Trump's new-found affection for his Chinese counterpart has grown.
Last Saturday, after the most recent launch, he wrote on Twitter that North Korea had "disrespected the wishes of China and its highly respected president when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!"
Decisions to deny the Navy's requests to sail within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands in the South China Sea were fairly routine during the Obama administration. In fact, Mr Obama came under fire from the Republicans for suspending such excursions for more than two years out of concern over further raising tensions with Beijing.
In an interview with The New York Times in March last year during the presidential campaign, Mr Trump said Beijing had built in the South China Sea "a military fortress, the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen".
He had added: "They do that at will, because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country."
As for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he came to office saying China's island-building campaign was "akin to Russia's taking of Crimea" and that Chinese access to the islands would not be allowed. That denial of access is now on the back-burner.