PHOTO: Drew Angerer/JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
01:26
Trump and China: What's at stake?
CNN gets rare access on board a US military surveillance flight over the hotly-disputed islands in the South China Sea.
PHOTO: Paul Devitt/CNN
CNN gets rare access on board a US military surveillance flight over the hotly-disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Now playing
02:43
CNN's rare view of contested South China Sea
A US Navy ship had an "unsafe" interaction with a Chinese warship September 30 while the US vessel was conducting a freedom of navigation operation near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, causing the US ship to maneuver "to prevent a collision," according to US defense officials.
PHOTO: U.S. Navy
A US Navy ship had an "unsafe" interaction with a Chinese warship September 30 while the US vessel was conducting a freedom of navigation operation near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, causing the US ship to maneuver "to prevent a collision," according to US defense officials.
Now playing
03:42
Photos show encounter with Chinese warship
us navy plane warned south china sea watson dnt vpx_00030107.jpg
PHOTO: CNN
us navy plane warned south china sea watson dnt vpx_00030107.jpg
Now playing
03:02
US Navy plane warned over South China Sea
Now playing
01:17
Why it's so tense in the South China Sea (2018)
Kristie Lu Stout South China Sea graphic explainer    _00003005.jpg
Kristie Lu Stout South China Sea graphic explainer _00003005.jpg
Now playing
01:55
South China Sea: A virtual explainer
James Mattis, US Secretary of Defense, speaks during the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue Asia Security Summit in Singapore, on Saturday, June 2, 2018. Mattis blasted Chinas deployment of military assets in the South China Sea, expanding the Trump administrations criticism of the country amid a continued dispute over trade. Photographer: Paul Miller/Bloomberg via Getty Images
PHOTO: Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
James Mattis, US Secretary of Defense, speaks during the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue Asia Security Summit in Singapore, on Saturday, June 2, 2018. Mattis blasted Chinas deployment of military assets in the South China Sea, expanding the Trump administrations criticism of the country amid a continued dispute over trade. Photographer: Paul Miller/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Now playing
01:06
Mattis: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay
Now playing
01:47
US destroyer sails near China-claimed island
160612-N-BL637-685 PACIFIC OCEAN (June 12, 2016) A MV-22B Osprey, from Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1, lifts off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). The V-22 Osprey is being tested, evaluated and is slated to be planned replacement for the C-2Q Greyhound as the singular logistics platform on an aircraft carrier for future carrier on-board delivery operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Castellano/Released)
PHOTO: Specialist 3rd Class Sean Castellano/US Navy
160612-N-BL637-685 PACIFIC OCEAN (June 12, 2016) A MV-22B Osprey, from Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1, lifts off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). The V-22 Osprey is being tested, evaluated and is slated to be planned replacement for the C-2Q Greyhound as the singular logistics platform on an aircraft carrier for future carrier on-board delivery operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Castellano/Released)
Now playing
00:46
US starts 'routine' patrols in South China Sea
china's role with north korea rivers pkg_00015608.jpg
china's role with north korea rivers pkg_00015608.jpg
Now playing
02:18
Can China help the US deal with North Korea?
south china seas disputed island ivan watson pkg_00015514.jpg
south china seas disputed island ivan watson pkg_00015514.jpg
Now playing
02:21
War of words over islands in South China Sea
beijing rejects south china sea ruling lklv rivers _00013601.jpg
beijing rejects south china sea ruling lklv rivers _00013601.jpg
Now playing
02:18
Beijing rejects South China Sea ruling
US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the National Convention Center in Hanoi on May 24, 2016.
Obama, currently on a visit to Vietnam, met with civil society leaders including some of the country's long-harassed critics on May 24. The visit is Obama's first to the country -- and the third by a sitting president since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. / AFP / JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: JIM WATSON/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the National Convention Center in Hanoi on May 24, 2016. Obama, currently on a visit to Vietnam, met with civil society leaders including some of the country's long-harassed critics on May 24. The visit is Obama's first to the country -- and the third by a sitting president since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:56
President Obama: 'Sovereignty should be respected'
vietnam fishermen south china sea dispute mohsin pkg_00001216.jpg
vietnam fishermen south china sea dispute mohsin pkg_00001216.jpg
Now playing
02:41
Fishermen caught up in South China Sea tensions
FILE PHOTO -- The RC-135U Combat Sent, located at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., provides strategic electronic reconnaissance information to the president, secretary of defense, Department of Defense leaders and theater commanders.  (U.S. Air Force photo)
PHOTO: U.S. Air Force
FILE PHOTO -- The RC-135U Combat Sent, located at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., provides strategic electronic reconnaissance information to the president, secretary of defense, Department of Defense leaders and theater commanders. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Now playing
01:24
Chinese jet makes 'unsafe' intercept

Story highlights

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promised stern action against China in January 2017

But since President Trump took power, no freedom of navigation exercises have taken place

(CNN) —  

The Trump administration appears to be easing up on Beijing in the South China Sea, in what is being seen as another concession to China by the new US president who hopes for a solution in North Korea.

Since Trump took office, the sole request by US military to sail a warship close to artificial islands China has built in the contested waters has been 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 US Navy vessels sailing within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands at least three times in the past year-and-a-half.

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.

Analysts say it’s the latest in a series of efforts by President Trump to appease China, whose help he wants in restraining North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

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

Trump backs down on China

The last publicly announced freedom of navigation operation was in October 2016, four months before 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, US 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 US vessels.

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

Trump backed down on his pledge to label China as a currency manipulator on his first day in office, while early in his presidency he quickly agreed to honor the “one China” policy that Beijing considers a necessity.

In the past week, Trump even said he’d call Xi for permission before he spoke to Taiwan’s leader over the phone again.

’Ceding to China’

Mike Chinoy, non-resident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s US 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 sitting 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 US-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.”

The recalculation has started for some countries.

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leader summit in Manila in April, China scored a major victory when the joint statement seriously watered down the denunciation of its island-building in the South China Sea.

“ASEAN cannot maintain its position in dealing with China … unless the pressure is on China by the maritime powers,” Carl Thayer, regional security analyst and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, told CNN.

Operations to continue

A US State Department official told CNN that freedom of navigation operations in the South China sea “won’t be stopping.”

“They demonstrate a very core principle that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever this international law allows,” said Patrick Murphy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “So this is not about any one country. And I can assure you that (the operations) will continue. I’m not in a position to offer any more specifics.”

On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told CNN that US forces operated in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, “including in the South China Sea.”

CNN gets rare access on board a US military surveillance flight over the hotly-disputed islands in the South China Sea.
PHOTO: Paul Devitt/CNN
CNN gets rare access on board a US military surveillance flight over the hotly-disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Now playing
02:43
CNN's rare view of contested South China Sea
A US Navy ship had an "unsafe" interaction with a Chinese warship September 30 while the US vessel was conducting a freedom of navigation operation near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, causing the US ship to maneuver "to prevent a collision," according to US defense officials.
PHOTO: U.S. Navy
A US Navy ship had an "unsafe" interaction with a Chinese warship September 30 while the US vessel was conducting a freedom of navigation operation near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, causing the US ship to maneuver "to prevent a collision," according to US defense officials.
Now playing
03:42
Photos show encounter with Chinese warship
us navy plane warned south china sea watson dnt vpx_00030107.jpg
PHOTO: CNN
us navy plane warned south china sea watson dnt vpx_00030107.jpg
Now playing
03:02
US Navy plane warned over South China Sea
Now playing
01:17
Why it's so tense in the South China Sea (2018)
Kristie Lu Stout South China Sea graphic explainer    _00003005.jpg
Kristie Lu Stout South China Sea graphic explainer _00003005.jpg
Now playing
01:55
South China Sea: A virtual explainer
James Mattis, US Secretary of Defense, speaks during the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue Asia Security Summit in Singapore, on Saturday, June 2, 2018. Mattis blasted Chinas deployment of military assets in the South China Sea, expanding the Trump administrations criticism of the country amid a continued dispute over trade. Photographer: Paul Miller/Bloomberg via Getty Images
PHOTO: Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
James Mattis, US Secretary of Defense, speaks during the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue Asia Security Summit in Singapore, on Saturday, June 2, 2018. Mattis blasted Chinas deployment of military assets in the South China Sea, expanding the Trump administrations criticism of the country amid a continued dispute over trade. Photographer: Paul Miller/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Now playing
01:06
Mattis: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay
Now playing
01:47
US destroyer sails near China-claimed island
160612-N-BL637-685 PACIFIC OCEAN (June 12, 2016) A MV-22B Osprey, from Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1, lifts off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). The V-22 Osprey is being tested, evaluated and is slated to be planned replacement for the C-2Q Greyhound as the singular logistics platform on an aircraft carrier for future carrier on-board delivery operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Castellano/Released)
PHOTO: Specialist 3rd Class Sean Castellano/US Navy
160612-N-BL637-685 PACIFIC OCEAN (June 12, 2016) A MV-22B Osprey, from Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1, lifts off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). The V-22 Osprey is being tested, evaluated and is slated to be planned replacement for the C-2Q Greyhound as the singular logistics platform on an aircraft carrier for future carrier on-board delivery operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Castellano/Released)
Now playing
00:46
US starts 'routine' patrols in South China Sea
PHOTO: Drew Angerer/JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
01:26
Trump and China: What's at stake?
china's role with north korea rivers pkg_00015608.jpg
china's role with north korea rivers pkg_00015608.jpg
Now playing
02:18
Can China help the US deal with North Korea?
south china seas disputed island ivan watson pkg_00015514.jpg
south china seas disputed island ivan watson pkg_00015514.jpg
Now playing
02:21
War of words over islands in South China Sea
beijing rejects south china sea ruling lklv rivers _00013601.jpg
beijing rejects south china sea ruling lklv rivers _00013601.jpg
Now playing
02:18
Beijing rejects South China Sea ruling
US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the National Convention Center in Hanoi on May 24, 2016.
Obama, currently on a visit to Vietnam, met with civil society leaders including some of the country's long-harassed critics on May 24. The visit is Obama's first to the country -- and the third by a sitting president since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. / AFP / JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: JIM WATSON/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the National Convention Center in Hanoi on May 24, 2016. Obama, currently on a visit to Vietnam, met with civil society leaders including some of the country's long-harassed critics on May 24. The visit is Obama's first to the country -- and the third by a sitting president since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:56
President Obama: 'Sovereignty should be respected'
vietnam fishermen south china sea dispute mohsin pkg_00001216.jpg
vietnam fishermen south china sea dispute mohsin pkg_00001216.jpg
Now playing
02:41
Fishermen caught up in South China Sea tensions