Is U.S. steering clear of South China Sea under Trump?

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(File photo) U.S. President Donald Trump

(CNN) — The Trump administration looks to be easing up on Beijing in the South China Sea.

Since the new U.S. President took office, there has been one request by U.S. military to sail a warship close to artificial islands China has built in the contested waters and it was turned down by the Pentagon, a senior defense official told CNN Wednesday.

Freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea were regularly authorized by the Obama administration, with U.S. navy vessels sailing within 12 nautical miles of China's artificial islands at least three times in the past year-and-a-half.

China has described the operations as a serious breach of law and an intentional provocation.

The official said the denial – first reported by the New York Times – was partly due to an effort inside the Pentagon to turn down the temperature of operations that could be viewed as antagonizing China or North Korea.

It comes as President Donald Trump has been seeking China's help in restraining North Korea's nuclear ambitions by enforcing sanctions on Pyongyang.

'Ceding to China'

Mike Chinoy, non-resident senior fellow at the University of South California's U.S. China Institute, told CNN that Beijing would be thrilled by the administration's apparent decision to hold off testing China in the South China Sea.

"I think if you're siting in Beijing you have to be very pleased that Donald Trump is in the White House because he is ceding to China a great deal in terms of clout and advantage," Chinoy said.

"In the meantime, countries in Asia that have not wanted a U.S., China clash but have wanted substantial American presence to counterbalance the growing clout of China ... are going to calculate that they can't count on the US in the way they did before."

Trump backs down on China

The last publicly announced freedom of navigation operation was in October 2016, four months before President Trump took power.

Prior to his inauguration, Trump's point man on foreign policy promised stern action in the South China Sea against China's island building and militarization.

At his confirmation hearing, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration might take a more aggressive approach to the South China Sea.

"Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia's taking of Crimea. It's taking of territory that others lay claim to," Tillerson said in January.

He even hinted that Chinese access to the artificial islands could be restricted by U.S. vessels.

But as relations between Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping have improved, with the U.S. prioritizing tensions in the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea has fallen out of the spotlight.

Freedom of navigation operations to go unreported

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told CNN Wednesday that U.S. forces operated in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, "including in the South China Sea."

"All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows," he said.

The Pentagon said the U.S. military will continue with regular freedom of navigation operations but in the future Davis said "these operations will be released publicly in the annual FONOPS report, and not sooner."

This would mark a significant change from the Obama administration which publicly discussed South China Sea operations on a routine basis.

This story was first published on, "Is US steering clear of South China Sea under Trump?"