Beijing claims the entire South China Sea to be its national territory based on the history of Imperial China. This claim has no standing under current international law, but Beijing believes its “comprehensive national power” will make its claims a reality the world will have to heed. The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its escorts sailed recently through the Taiwan Straits on their way to joining a large fleet live-fire exercise (involving some 40 warships) in the disputed sea. The appearance of the PLA Navy carrier off Taiwan was in response not just to the freedom of navigation voyages of the U.S. and its allies, but a demonstration against the improved relations between Washington and what Beijing considers to be a rebel province.
By William R. Hawkins l April 9, 2018
Carrier strike groups USS Ronald Reagan (76) and USS Carl Vinson (70) alongside Japanese forces in the Sea of Japan off the Korean Peninsula in response to ballistic missile tests conducted by North Korea
While tensions have not yet risen to the level seen in the 2010 Korean crisis, they are rising, with naval maneuvers again being the most evident sign of a possible military confrontation. It is against this backdrop of coercive diplomacy, that recent actions by President Donald Trump must be understood.
On March 5, the strike group led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson started a four day visit to the port of Da Nang in Vietnam. Though U.S. warships have visited Vietnam before, this was the first time a carrier group had arrived to support closer relations between former enemies who now face a common threat from China. Beijing tried to downplay the visit. A post by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) claimed that “However much US-Vietnam military cooperation is upgraded, it will not embolden Hanoi to act as a US outpost to confront Beijing.” The PLA editorial argued, “it is primarily comprehensive strength that shapes the geopolitics there” and China had the edge because “China has become stronger in affecting the overall situation in the South China Sea….is more capable than before of deploying warships, the air force and missiles to deter Washington’s South China Sea activities.” The ability to militarize its artificial islands constructed in the South China Sea was also mentioned, a process already underway and which is fueling counter-action by other nations in the region.
The U.S. regularly sends warships through the waters close to China’s “islands” to maintain the principle of freedom of navigation along one of the world’s busiest trade routes. And Beijing always protests these actions. On March 23, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated: “The Chinese side strongly urges the US side to immediately stop provocative operations that violate China’s sovereignty.” But the U.S. naval voyages are meant to show that the Chinese claim of sovereignty in international waters is illegal. In March, the French Navy sent a frigate through the same area for the same reason. The French warship rendezvoused with a U.S. destroyer. Paris stated that its frigate was there to assert its interests in the Pacific and demonstrate the ability to cooperate with allies. France showed another dimension of its Asian strategy by making an agreement with India allowing each country can use the military bases of the other. Australia has also increased its presence in the South China Sea, its warships making port visits and carrying out joint maneuvers with South Korea, Indonesia, and Philippines.
China’s Imperial Claims
Strategically, Beijing is sending warships into the Indian Ocean, expanding the port of Gwadar in Pakistan with an eye to using it as a naval base, and pouring money into Sri Lanka. That China sent eleven warships into the vicinity of the Maldives, a collection of resort islands off the coast of Sri Lanka, during its ongoing political crisis has also set off alarm bells in New Delhi. Embattled Maldives President Abdulla Yameen has signed up to the One Belt, One Road initiative, which is Beijing’s massive, global plan to spread its influence across Asia, the Mideast, and Africa to Europe.
Beijing claims the entire South China Sea to be its national territory based on the history of Imperial China. This claim has no standing under current international law, but Beijing believes its “comprehensive national power” will make its claims a reality the world will have to heed. The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its escorts sailed recently through the Taiwan Straits on their way to joining a large fleet live-fire exercise (involving some 40 warships) in the disputed sea. The appearance of the PLA Navy carrier off Taiwan was in response not just to the freedom of navigation voyages of the U.S. and its allies, but a demonstration against the improved relations between Washington and what Beijing considers to be a rebel province. President Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act (passed by voice vote in both houses of Congress), which encourages officials of the two countries to visit each other. Beijing strongly objects to any action that gives Taiwan the status of an independent entity; and has made threats against the bill including the possible use of military force to prevent any further signs of “separatism” on an island whose people do not want to live under the authoritarian rule of the mainland regime.
Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea
The state-run Chinese media is full of stories about the nation’s growing military power. Addressing the 13 the National People’s Congress on March 20, President Xi Jinping, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, said: “China needs a modern combat system to build world-class combat capability under the leadership of the Communist Party of China…the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the cornerstone of the People’s Liberation Army.” The People’s Daily has reported that Chinese military development will include surprises: “The surprises include progress on the research of China’s next generation of stealth fighters, which is expected to make China no longer a follower, but a leader in the development of stealth fighters,….The advanced series could help China seize air superiority in the Asia-Pacific region and safeguard national security when facing containment from the US, Japan, Australia and India.” At the same time, Beijing objects to the U.S. selling advanced aircraft like the F-35 Lightning II fighter to Japan, South Korea, perhaps Taiwan.
Trump’s Military Buildup
No wonder President Trump gave top priority to rebuilding the U.S. armed forces when negotiating the omnibus spending bill that will fund the Federal government for the rest of this fiscal year. Most of the money in the 1.3 trillion discretionary spending bill will go for defense, including money for a dozen new warships including an aircraft carrier. There was additional funding for border security, infrastructure and the war against drugs; all proper and needed programs. Unfortunately, the bill also included spending on less useful causes demanded by the Democrats. President Trump thus had to hold his nose and do what President Ronald Reagan had to do; buy Democratic votes to get needed programs funded. Budget deficits went up under Reagan too; but his defense buildup helped win the Cold War. Trump has adopted the same “peace through strength” philosophy and will have to pay the same price for it as long as the Democrats have enough seats to block legislation without a payoff.
The military has been hollowed out by years of neglect under President Barack Obama, who’s foreign policy was based on appeasement and withdrawal rather than confrontation and winning. During the 2010 Korean crisis, the Chinese backed Pyongyang to the hilt with military exercises and threatening rhetoric. They had taken the measure of Obama, who retreated. Beijing has been more worried about President Trump, who had campaigned on ending China’s looting of the American economy with predatory trade and espionage. President Xi tried to placate his U.S. counterpart by offering to “help” with North Korea, Trump could not launch a “trade war” if Beijing was cooperating on a critical security issue.
The Charade of Chinese “Help” in Disarming North Korea
It has become apparent that China was not really helping, just going through the motions. Trump had gotten Xi’s attention with the missile attack on Syria, but there was no follow up. Both Beijing and Pyongyang had seen this all before: tough talk, sanctions, show of force, UN resolutions, etc. None of it mattered. No decisive action was being taken against North Korea (or China) and the crisis would likely die out again with nothing changed. The Kim dynasty would continue to develop nuclear weapons. But the gambit has now failed. Trump let the charade last too long, but his announcement of $50 billion in tariffs on strategic Chinese exports sent a clear signal that he has given up on Chinese “help.” His National Defense Strategy named China along with Russia as our major competitors. And as Reagan did with the Soviet Union, Trump sees the weaker economies of our rivals as key pressure points.
When the U.S. Naval Institute reported President Trump’s tariffs, it said, “The implicit message is the actions intend to guard the U.S. military’s technological advantage in a 21st Century battlespace.” Besides the tariffs, the order also puts limits on Chinese investment in American technology companies to protect their intellectual property. Foreign firms operating in China must take a Chinese partner who will possess 51% of the stock and have access to everything the foreign firms have – mandated espionage. Among the tech-industry representative standing with Trump at the signing ceremony was Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed Martin, the builder of the new F-35 fighter. This top priority defense program was hacked by the Chinese during its development. Even the Wall Street Journal, normally a bastion of classical liberal sophistries like free trade, ran a column on March 23 blaming China for waging a global trade war long before Trump took office.
Chinese strategists sensed Trump was losing his patience and have launched new gambits that have worked in the past to divert confrontations they know they are not strong enough (yet) to win. As communists, they believe that the national loyalty of business leaders in a capitalist society is weak, but their political power is strong when used to buy votes to protect their profits. So, Beijing has tailored its trade retaliation at business interests in Republican states, particularly farmers and high-tech merchants who have outsourced production to “cheap” Chinese factories. For example, the Chinese Development Forum was held in Beijing the weekend of March 24. It attracted business leaders from around the world. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, participated. He criticized Trump’s tariffs, saying that “only countries that embrace openness, trade and diversity can achieve success and be exceptional.” Yet, China is not truly open, and its trade is one-way. Its mercantilist policies have produced very high growth rates. Apple helps Beijing run trade surpluses and has outsourced jobs from America to China. Apple’s leaders believe money can be made helping China “rise” regardless of the larger consequences. It wants to continue to operate “above” society with an allegiance only to itself. U.S. policy must put firms like Apple in its place, which is below, not above, the national interest.
China also played a role in North Korea’s invitation for direct talks with President Trump. As long as Americans are talking, and not acting, the status quo is maintained. Beijing is determined to be involved in any negotiations to protect its interests. It wants the talks to be held in Beijing. In 2003, when North Korea was afraid it would be the next target for forced disarmament like Iraq, Beijing offered to host the Six Party Talks which served to block any action against Pyongyang. China and Russia were both parties who defended North Korea. For Trump to be successful in his meeting with Kim Jong-un, more pressure must be mustered between now and the projected May meeting to impress upon both Beijing and Pyongyang that this time is different. They must be convinced that if talks fail to disarm North Korea, the consequences will be unbearable for both communist regimes.
What China Means by “Denuclearization”
China is still key to the North Korean problem. A March 18 editorial in Global Times, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, argued:
Maintaining friendly relations between China and North Korea is in line with the interests of both sides. For China, it is conducive to Beijing’s peripheral strategy and can make more room for its maneuvering in Northeast Asian affairs. For North Korea, it would be difficult and dangerous to cope with Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo all alone. China’s support can defuse many risks.
Kim regime. China wants the U.S. to withdraw its forces from South Korea; at a minimum dismantle any missile defense systems that could shoot down Chinese missiles as well as North Korean. Since the U.S. is a nuclear power, it should be part of the “denuclearization” of both Koreas. That is what is implied in Kim’s invitation to Trump; the removal of “threats” to North Korea as the basis for negotiations. Beijing is using Pyongyang as a pawn to remove the U.S. from the region and undermine American alliances with South Korea and Japan. That would be an unacceptable bargain.
Kim Jong-un’s sudden trip to Beijing, his first since taking power in 2011, indicates that the two regimes realize they are facing a stronger adversary in President Trump. The timing is significant, coming only days after John “Military Option” Bolton was named National Security Advisor. Global Times reported on the Xi-Kim meeting that “Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula” were at the top on their agenda, but with no further details. The main theme of the story was the close geopolitical ties between the two countries, based on the fact that both countries are ruled by communist parties. The Communist newspaper noted: “In the past century, the two countries were mutually dependent and stood together through all the miseries in Asia’s history. Their collaboration in wars contributed to their unusual friendship.”
Keeping the Focus on North Korea
This could mean that Xi promised Kim that North Korea could give up its nuclear program because China would guarantee its security, as it has in the past. Or, it could mean that the two regimes will stand together in the upcoming talks and demand concessions from the U.S. that would weaken the American alliance system. Kim reportedly told Xi that he would disarm only if the U.S. and South Korea take “phased and simultaneous measures in response to our peace efforts.”
Whatever the Xi-Kim meeting meant, President Trump expects a favorable outcome from talks, not the stalling tactics used in the past. And that outcome must bring about the denuclearization of North Korea without weakening the American position in Northeast Asia. The only questions are how far will Trump have to go to prevail, and do the American people have the fortitude to see the job through?
William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the Conservative-Online-Journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.