Donald Trump has made it clear that he sees China as one of the biggest threats to the US economy in his campaign against the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Where Mr. Trump faces criticism for the praise he has shown Russian President Vladimir Putin, he has been more than willing to condemn Chinese leadership. He has even gone so far as to speak with the President of Taiwan, officially the Republic of China. This is a sensitive issue for the People’s Republic of China, because Taiwan hosts the pre-Communist government of the mainland, which Beijing fears could raise questions about its legitimacy and foment civil unrest.
The incoming US President appears to prioritize the threat of Chinese aggression above the threat of the Islamic States and Russian dominance. Although the South China Sea Crisis and East China Sea Crisis demanded a US response and President Obama long wanted to prioritize Asia in his foreign policy, which was made evident by his push for TPP, the Arab Spring Revolutions, the Islamic State threat, and the Ukraine Crisis prevented President Obama from pivoting away from the Middle East and Russia. Where Obama failed to free himself from the foreign policy priorities that he inherited from his predecessors, Mr. Trump will immediately define his foreign policy by Asia.
China’s aggressive pursuit of its interests and exertion of its influence is, therefore, reemerging as a top security priority of the United States to the benefit of China’s neighbors. Before the Ukraine Crisis and the Islamic State stole the focus of international security, territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea threatened to draw the US and its Asian allies into an armed conflict with China. Renewed fears of a confrontation have arisen throughout the Obama Administration over the US Navy’s so-called “freedom of navigation patrols” near the disputed Spratly Islands, including Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs where China is building artificial islands capable of essentially serving as fixed aircraft carriers.
Intended to send a clear message of support to South China Sea nations incapable of fending off China, the US fully understands these freedom of navigation patrols into the disputed waters are seen as “provocative” and “aggressive,” despite official rhetoric to the contrary. The US is not, however, necessarily trying to pick a fight with China or even single out China. At stake is the ability to travel freely throughout the South China Sea without fear of Chinese interference or attack. Just as the integrity of international law and norms are threatened by Russia’s seizure of Crimea in the case of the Ukraine Crisis, the integrity of international maritime law and norms is also threatened by Chinese policies designed to circumvent the rules.
In his book, “Beyond the Age of Innocence,” former-Singapore Ambassador to the UN Kishore Mahbubani discussed America’s willingness to subsidize global security and enforce international law. He pointed out that the US would even use its military might to intervene against a neighboring ally like Canada, if it tried to block international waters. For South China Sea countries, their national security, territorial integrity, unsettled claims to a wealth of natural resources, and very sovereignty is threatened by China’s dominance. Consequently, the US under the Obama Administration was simply acting as a good ally and superpower by confronting China for China’s neighbors. It appears Trump will adopt a stepped up version of Obama’s policies toward China.
Given the Ukraine Crisis and all the threats involving Syria, particularly tensions between Russia and the West, this is far from an ideal time to pick a fight with China. The unfortunate reality is that the US and the rest of International Community have been distracted by other imminent threats, which have basically allowed China’s domineering policies to go unchecked. Ignoring the situation has only given China the space needed to build the artificial islands it is using to legitimize disputed Chinese claims in the South China Sea. A failure to address the underlying issues driving the conflict sooner rather than later will allow China to further entrench itself into disputed territory, thereby making an acceptable, viable resolution far more difficult to develop and implement.
To China’s credit, it has taken steps to deescalate potential conflict by ratcheting down tensions with Vietnam, for example, over the Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil rig it towed into disputed waters in 2014. More policies decisions like this one are needed to ensure all of the issues provoking this regional conflict do not result in armed conflict. Recognizing the artificial islands would best serve a defensive strategy and China’s military is best suited to operate domestically, it appears the Chinese may only be seeking a deterrent against armed conflict. China does not appear to want an armed conflict with the US or its neighbors, especially in the wake of its massive economic crisis, or risk sparking a devastating third world war, which Russia may have been trying to instigate, and nuclear war.
Since the Ukraine Crisis, as well as the Russian intervention Crisis in Syria, Chinese leadership sees the US is more willing to risk armed conflict. In asserting Chinese interests and influence, it was presuming the US would not risk an armed conflict with China or Russia. That assumption has been proven invalid, especially now that the highly confrontational, anti-China, and unpredictable Donald Trump has been elected. Beijing is, therefore, in a tough position. The problem for China is that it has been stoking patriotic, anti-Western sentiments to avoid civil unrest over its inability to deliver on economic promises and other social reforms. At the same time, Chinese leadership is pursing illogical policies, which tends to invite civil unrest.
Beijing’s sheepish response to the defiance of US warships only validates criticism and shows the weakness of the Communist leader. The truth is that the Chinese government cannot afford to fight a war against the US and its allies, but it cannot risk internal strife either by appearing too weak to control its own territory. Risking a return to accelerating Chinese aggression, the US cannot simply wait until a more convenient time to resolve the issues driving these territorial disputes. Strategic security and intelligence expert Harry Nimon has performed simulations that suggest the US and its allies could not dislodge an entrenched China from the South Sea, which means a protracted cold war situation would be likely.
Before the situation escalates to an armed standoff, or worse, it is time for China and its neighbors, which are relying on US might to assert their interests, to resolve the long running political standoff. Thanks to current conditions, China is not in an ideal position, which means its weaker neighbors are not at a complete disadvantage. It also means China is in a mood to avoid conflict, which means it might be more willing to negotiate instead of risking a conflict by calling America’s bluff. China should use this opportunity to resolve underlying issues within its neighborhood in order to craft viable, balanced solutions and ensure the long-term regional stability it needs.
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