Not Just Trade War: China and U.S. Headed to Military Showdown

(Bloomberg View) -- The tit-for-tat trade sanctions fight between the U.S and China may be getting the headlines and rocking financial markets, but some less-noticed recent flare-ups between the world’s preeminent powers may present more lasting, and perilous, complications for American policymakers. 

The new National Defense and National Security Strategies produced by the Donald Trump administration made clear that Washington has a decidedly more pessimistic outlook on its future relationship with China. For years, the U.S. had focused on China’s potential to integrate more effectively into the international system; it is now girding for a return to the great-power competition of the 20th century.

Chinese officials, who spend a lot more time poring over U.S. strategy documents than most American do, certainly interpreted this shift as presaging a downturn in relations, preparation for military conflict, and confirmation of their long-held belief that the U.S. seeks to blunt China’s rise and limit its global influence.  

Meanwhile, in response to China’s growing military and diplomatic assertiveness in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy has gradually routinized its freedom of navigation operations in the Spratly Islands -- conducting one every two or so months since early 2017. In late March, the Navy conducted -- and publicized -- a pointedly ambitious operation near Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef, intended to signal that the U.S. considers the reef a “low-tide elevation” rather than a true island, challenging China’s claim to sovereignty and a surrounding 12-mile exclusive territorial area. 

China was likely also displeased when last month the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson visited Da Nang -- the first U.S. carrier trip to Vietnam since 1975. 

In response, China’s Defense Ministry condemned the Mischief Reef operation as a “serious military provocation,” and shortly thereafter conducted its own large naval exercise, involving 40 ships and an aircraft carrier, off of Hainan Island on China’s southeast coast. This week, U.S. officials publicly called out China’s installation  of radar-jamming equipment (with obvious military applications) on two of its newly constructed islands in the Spratly chain.

Yet China’s most tendentious act may have been verbal rather than martial. On a visit to Moscow this month, China’s new defense minister, General Wei Fenghe, declared, “The Chinese side has come to Moscow to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia, and that we’ve come to support you.” 

The situation is not much better on the diplomatic front. While China in recent months had bowed to U.S. pressure and agreed to tighten economic sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear weapons programs, President Xi Jinping was apparently caught off guard when President Donald Trump announced he intended to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un this spring.

Xi responded by hosting Kim for a surprise visit to Beijing, the North Korean leader’s first foreign trip since assuming power. It was a not-too-subtle signal that China will be at the center of any discussion involving the future of the Korean Peninsula.   

Still, it’s the Taiwan issue that seems the greatest irritant to China. On March 16, Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages increased exchanges between U.S. officials and their counterparts on the island. A few days later, the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Alex Wong, met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during a three-day stay. In a normal year, Beijing would have probably shrugged off such a visit, but this is not a normal year in U.S.-China relations.   

Beijing hit back by calling the travel measure a violation of the One-China Policy, the diplomatic framework that has bolstered peace in the Taiwan Strait for seven decades. Look for things to get even hotter in June, potentially involving  an increase in Chinese naval exercises, when the U.S. may send a top official to Taipei for the opening of the new headquarters of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto embassy on the island.

All this has been unfolding against a worrisome backdrop of China’s steadily rising defense budget, ambitious investment in scientific research and development, and the so-called One Belt One Road initiative, intended to establish a far-reaching China-centered trading network covering dozens of countries across Eurasia.

In my view -- I’m currently on a government-funded fellowship and these opinions are solely mine -- this doesn’t mean the U.S. and China are locked into a Thucydides Trap and heading for an inevitable military conflict. But it does mean that top officials in both countries need to reflect carefully on the current trajectory of the relationship and calm things down. In fact, this would be a good time for policymakers in both countries to work together to identify potential areas of enhanced cooperation.

For example, regarding North Korea, the best chance for persuading Kim to make meaningful concessions in upcoming talks is if Washington and Beijing stay joined at the hip in applying economic pressure and in sending Kim a consistent, forceful message about the future disposition of his weapons programs. This will require close consultation and coordination between senior officials in Washington and Beijing in the coming weeks. One thing is certain about these talks -- the North Koreans are skilled negotiators and will happily exploit any perceived gaps between Washington’s and Beijing’s positions to stall for time and avoid making concrete commitments. Neither China nor the U.S. wants that.

Similarly, Beijing is increasingly worried about terrorism and the potential return of hundreds of Uighur fighters from Syria following the destruction of the Islamic State’s physical caliphate. This may present an opening for increased cooperation against terrorist targets globally, but especially in vulnerable parts of Southeast Asia where various extremist groups seem to be gaining a foothold.

Working together on these and other issues is the best way to ensure that the latest string of serious but still-manageable irritants do not deteriorate into a broader crisis that neither the U.S. nor China desires but that neither can prevent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Michael Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former acting director of national intelligence.

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