U.S.-China relations have been on a generally downward trajectory since it became apparent during the later Obama years that America’s longstanding policy of diplomatic and economic engagement had failed to bring China around to embrace democratic institutions or accept the rules-based international order led by the United States. On all fronts—diplomatic, military, and commercial—the relationship has been an exceptionally bumpy ride since Donald Trump assumed office. With the advent of COVID-19, international relations scholars and professional China watchers say, things have gone rapidly from bad to worse.
Indeed, U.S.-China relations haven’t been this choleric since the bad old days of the Vietnam War, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was thought to be the engine behind the communist effort to conquer South Vietnam, American and Chinese soldiers were killing each other, and the United States refused to recognize the legitimacy of the government in Beijing. (Yes, China’s People’s Liberation Army suffered several thousand casualties during the Vietnam War, when it sent advisers and support troops to North Vietnam.)
Since March, the two governments have been reduced to trading insults and taunts, closing consulates, and mounting demonization campaigns against “the enemy” for the benefit of their respective domestic audiences, thereby further poisoning the atmosphere. Trump’s chief national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, recently compared President Xi Jinping to one of the greatest mass murderers in history, Josef Stalin, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a series of bombastic, thinly veiled threats against Beijing for a pattern of theft of intellectual property, economic coercion, and military bullying in the highly contested South China Sea.
Official Chinese media responded by calling Pompeo “deranged” and “the enemy of mankind.” When President Trump took the surprising step of closing China’s consulate in Houston, Xi responded by closing the American consulate in Chengdu in Western China.
History’s Next Great War Zone: The South China Sea
Meanwhile, the PRC, say leading China experts Kurt Campbell and Mira Rapp-Hooper in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, has been on “an unprecedented diplomatic offensive.” It passed a new national security law that gravely undermines free speech and assembly in Hong Kong, violating Beijing’s agreement with the United Kingdom over its former colony. It has stepped up both the number and the assertiveness of its naval patrols in the disputed South China Sea, sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat, and running patrols in Indonesian waters. It has imposed draconian economic sanctions against Australia for calling for an investigation into the origins of COVID, and sparked several brawls between Indian and PLA troops by crossing into Indian territory. Perhaps most ominously, in its annual call for unification with Taiwan, Chinese diplomats dropped the adjective “peaceful” before the word “unification.”
In another recent essay in Foreign Affairs, former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy says that the risk of war between the world’s two greatest powers “is higher than it has been for decades, and it is growing.”
There are many reasons why relations have degenerated.
Rising powers almost inevitably butt heads with the dominant nation in their region, says the distinguished Harvard international relations expert Graham Allison. And more often than not, he argues in Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, their clash has spilled beyond diplomatic maneuvering and economic competition to violent conflict. The United States and China both see themselves as exceptional nations, chosen by providence to play leading roles in the world, and of course, they have radically different, in many ways diametrically opposed, political systems.
But according to Flournoy and a growing body of experts, there’s another, more remediable reason for the dangerous slide toward military conflict. The credibility of America’s commitment to deter Chinese aggression in Asia against its neighbors, writes Flournoy, “has been declining. For Beijing, the 2008-9 financial crisis gave rise to an enduring narrative of U.S. decline and Chinese superiority that has been reinforced by perceptions of U.S. withdrawal from the world—as well as… by its perception of bungled U.S. management of the pandemic and societal upheaval over racism.”
In other words, the Chinese, normally cautious and conservative in the international arena and anxious to avoid any sort of military confrontation, have begun to take a more aggressive course of action in Asia because policymakers in Beijing no longer believe that Washington has the will or the wherewithal to stop them. Indeed, it seems increasingly obvious in light of the recent spate of Chinese diplomatic and military initiatives in the region that Xi Jinping’s long-touted “China Dream” of “peaceful development” entails replacing the United States as the dominant strategic player in East Asia through a strategy of regional hegemony.
China is currently employing a deftly integrated mix of economic, political, and military pressure to further degrade America’s faltering position in Asia. It seeks to create an alternative to the rules-based international order that emerged under American leadership after World War II by forming a rival community of nations sympathetic to its own vision and policies, and with its own set of international development and finance institutions.
The engine driving this strategy, up until recently at least, has been coercive economic power rather than military might. China has been especially innovative in its use of economic clout to obtain strategic advantages. It is the leading trading partner now with virtually every country in Asia, and it regularly penalizes its partners for taking political stances not to its liking.
Since 2013 it has spent more than $400 billion on a burgeoning network of foreign ports, roads, railways, and airfields linking China to the rest of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. It uses the leverage it gains from loans and grants in the “Belt and Road Initiative”—many of which cannot possibly be repaid—to help create compliant, even dependent, governments.
Many of these projects have a not-so-subtle way of enhancing China’s military capabilities. Beijing began investing heavily in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa back in 2000, including a major port development project “for civilian use.” In the summer of 2017, the People’s Liberation Army announced that it had established its first naval base outside of China around that port in Djibouti.
In Cambodia, a Chinese company has been building a massive deep water port and airport in Koh Province, purportedly to help grow Cambodia’s lackluster economy. Western intelligence officials are all but certain that Chinese military forces will soon be deployed to the area. There is incontrovertible evidence that Beijing has already signed a secret agreement with Cambodian strongman Hun Sen to deploy Chinese forces at Ream Naval Base, where they could challenge a U.S. effort to respond to a PRC invasion of Taiwan. “A profusion of Chinese infrastructure projects like these,” writes leading Cambodian politician Sam Rainsy, “which benefit few in Cambodia beyond Hun Sen and his circle, have alienated ordinary Cambodians and become the focus of popular anger. With Chinese support, Hun Sen’s regime has systematically undermined Cambodia’s democratic opposition and eviscerated its free press… Hun Sen often behaves more like an obedient Chinese regional governor than a prime minister.”
China is investing heavily in educational and cultural programs to enhance perceptions of the regime abroad, but it’s in the military sphere that its intentions vis-a-vis the United States are most glaringly apparent. Xi Jinping has been the driving force behind an extraordinary military modernization and reform program, shifting billions of dollars from a conscript-oriented ground force to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which is now seen by defense experts as the most lethal and capable naval force on earth next to America’s, and already a worthy adversary to the U.S. Navy in both the Pacific and Indian oceans. Some experts believe China is ahead of the United States in technological fields with military applications, such as artificial and cyber intelligence.
“Of greatest concern is the substantial investment Beijing has made in ‘anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities,’” writes Flournoy. “Ranging from persistent precision strikes on U.S. logistics, forces, and bases to electronic, kinetic, and cyber attacks on digital connections and systems inside U.S. battle management networks, these capabilities are designed to prevent the United States from projecting military power into East Asia in order to defend its interests or allies. As a result, in the event that conflict starts, the United States can no longer expect to quickly achieve air, space, or maritime superiority; the U.S. military would need to fight to gain advantage, and then to keep it, in the face of continuous efforts to disrupt and degrade its battle management networks.” Chinese military planners, it appears, are tightly focused on developing assets to counter the pillars of American military pre-eminence in Asia: the aircraft carrier battle group; information dominance, and air superiority.
The most dramatic evidence of China’s intention to establish military dominance over East Asia through coercive means is surely its militarization of seven hotly disputed islets in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and the bullying of neighbors with rival claims for attempting to exploit fishing and development rights to which they are plainly entitled under international law. Since 2013 China has built up and fortified approximately 3,200 acres of disputed islets and reefs in the South China Sea. It has placed surface-to-air missiles, sophisticated radars, jet fighter runways, and communications facilities there, despite Xi’s 2015 promise to President Obama that he would not militarize the region.
Establishing military dominance over the South China Sea and other waters near China’s long coastline are seen by military analysts as a prerequisite to launching an invasion of Taiwan, with a view to reuniting that island bastion with the PRC by force—a development the United States has been determined to resist since the establishment of the PRC in 1949.
According to the current National Defense Strategy of the United States (2018), the strategic competition between the PRC and the United States “is now the primary concern of U.S. national security.” Yet one searches in vain for a coherent statement of the Trump administration’s strategy to counter, deflect, or come to accommodation with China’s quest for regional hegemony. There is no American counterpart to the Belt and Road Initiative. Thus far, the much vaunted “pivot” of American forces from the Middle East to Asia has yet to materialize. All we have seen is a modest shift in military assets in that direction. Is the United States prepared to defend Taiwan in the event of an amphibious invasion? Will it defend countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia from military bullying in the South China Sea?
We don’t know, and a good guess is that the chaos-plagued Trump administration doesn’t know either.
What would Trump’s opponent in the upcoming election, Joe Biden, do? Biden shares Trump’s belief that China is pursuing predatory economic policies and military dominance in Asia. He might well continue to impose tariffs on Beijing, but Biden’s China policy would begin at home. To deal effectively with China’s rise, the United States, Biden argues, must restore its credibility as a leader of the democratic world order by mending frayed relations with allies and partners. With those allies and partners, he would build a strategy for curbing China’s economic and military predations. Biden would reinvigorate America’s commitment to defending human rights and the rule of law abroad and bring pressure to bear against Beijing for its abuses against minorities on the mainland and the people of Hong Kong.
Instead of fretting over China’s startling gains in various strategic industries, the United States, says Biden, must up its own game. The Democrat has called for a government-sponsored program to enhance American innovation in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and the next generation of the 5G network.
Biden hasn’t outlined his China strategy in any great detail yet, but compared to Trump’s incoherent ranting about China, what he has said so far sounds like a promising start.
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