Okay, so we all read the news or at least heard that there is a real threat about a possible conflict between US and China. That is a huge issue [use Trump’s way saying huge] and a thing to be a tad afraid or at least it’s good to know what’s happening. We are all hearing different kinds of news about China’s building of the artificial islands, Russia’s being accused of trying to damage the campaign of the other presidential nominee, in other words – Trump’s rival, Hilary Rodham Clinton and other interesting stories.
The questions surrounding Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia are grim and compelling. But they are distracting from a more important and a far more dangerous story: the expanding signs that the Trump administration is heading for a confrontation, clash with China — one that could even lead to a military conflict.
The latest indication came last week at the confirmation hearings of Rex Tillerson, who is Mr. Trump’s nominee to be US Secretary of State, signaled a serious hardening in the US attitude to the artificial islands that Beijing has been building in the South China Sea. He compared the island-building programme to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and said that the Trump administration intended to send a clear signal to Beijing – your access to those islands is not going to be allowed. 1
That sounded like an American threat to blockade the islands, on which China has been building military installations. China would almost certainly attempt to break such a blockade, by sea or air. The stage would be set for a modern version of the Cuban missile crisis. The Chinese state-sanctioned media reacted ferociously to Mr. Tillerson’s statement. The Global Times, a nationalist paper, warned of “a large-scale war”, while China Daily spoke of a “devastating confrontation between China and the US”. It is certainly possible that Mr. Tillerson went further than he intended in his Congressional testimony. His statement seemed to contradict the formal American position that its sole concern is freedom of navigation in the Pacific and that it takes no position on Chinese sovereignty over the islands. But Mr. Tillerson has done nothing to withdraw or clarify his statements. And the Tillerson testimony is not the only indication that the Trump administration is bent on confrontation with China. Changes in US policy on Taiwan and trade point in the same direction. 1
Since 1979, when the US and China normalised relations, the US has respected Beijing’s One China policy, which could say: ‘’that Taiwan is a mere rebel province’’. As a result, no US leader has spoken to a leader of Taiwan for decades. But in December, Mr. Trump broke with this precedent by taking a phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. As is usual with Trump surprises, some suggested that the president-elect may simply have gaffed. But last week, Mr. Trump gave an interview in which he underlined that his administration might indeed abandon the One China policy, unless Beijing makes concessions on trade. Since China has repeatedly insisted that it will go to war rather than accept Taiwanese independence, this too is a high-risk policy. For Mr. Trump, the real bottom line is probably trade. During the election campaign, he fumed that – “We have a $500bn deficit with China… We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.” There is already talk of America imposing tariffs on Chinese goods and of a new import tax. 1
Put together the three Ts — Taiwan, Tillerson and trade — and there seems little doubt that Trump’s America is steaming towards a confrontation with China. In reality, China is putting increasing military, diplomatic and economic pressure on America’s allies in Asia. Countries such as South Korea and Singapore had got used to the idea that they can enjoy very close economic relations with China, while still looking to the US for their security. But that may be changing. The Chinese government is now threatening to discriminate against South Korean companies unless the government in Seoul reverses its decision to deploy a US missile shield on its territory.
Singapore, meanwhile, is coming under increasing pressure to break ties with Taiwan, where its troops have long carried out military training. China has signaled its displeasure by impounding some Singaporean troop carriers, which were passing through Hong Kong en route from Taiwan.
Last week China sent an aircraft-carrier through the Taiwan Strait, prompting the Taiwanese air force to scramble its fighter planes. Earlier in the week, the Japanese and South Korean air forces had also been scrambled in response to Chinese maneuvers.
So far there have been no similar confrontations between the US and Chinese navies. But if Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi stick to their current positions, that may only be a matter of time.
Any such confrontation will pose agonizing choices for America’s allies in Asia and farther afield. During the Obama years, the US could count on discreet support from its security partners in Asia in any face-off with China. But it is much less clear that America’s traditional allies will be willing to line up with an erratic, unpredictable and protectionist Trump administration that seems to be actively pushing for confrontation with Beijing. If Trump’s America goes after China, it cannot take the world’s sympathy for granted. 1/2
- Rachman, G. (2017) Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/a396bbf8-dbcf-11e6-9d7c-be108f1c1dce (Accessed: 16 January 2017).
- HOOKWAY, J. (2017) Available at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/china-u-s-rivalry-spurs-vietnam-to-look-for-new-comrades-1484549386 (Accessed: 16 January 2017).
- (2017) Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-38621025 (Accessed: 16 January 2017).