Where is China in the Presidential Campaign?

The public needs to understand the larger strategic context of the 2016 presidential campaign, but is not getting enough information on the stump about the most important duty of the next president; keeping the United States the preeminent power in the world system as China (and Russia) mount new challenges.

By William R. Hawkins | March 15, 2016

Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People’s Republic of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission meets with Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation

The world is dotted with trouble spots rooted in local events and history. Not all require “the international community” to become involved. However, when major powers do intervene to protect their interests, the dots become connected to the global balance of power. What happens in one theater can become linked to what happens in another theater on the other side of the planet. Mettle can be tested, lessons learned, and precedents set that can support or disrupt regional stability and world order.

Consider the tepid response of the Obama administration to Russian aggression against Ukraine, not on the periphery but in the heart of Europe. Crimea has been incorporated into Russia, an act which Western leaders claimed would not stand but which is now seldom mentioned. Russian-backed separatists now control many Ukrainian border areas. Washington would rather appease the Putin regime than give the Kiev government the help it would need to maintain its sovereignty. No wonder President Vladimir Putin thought military intervention in Syria (in league with Iran) would scare President Obama into abandoning the popular uprising against Bashir al-Assad’s dictatorship. The result is a cease-fire that supports the status quo and thus gives the Moscow-Tehran axis another diplomatic victory based on force.

Shift to Asia, where Communist China has been acting with new vigor to control the Pacific Rim. Aligned against America as they are, Beijing has been encouraged by Moscow’s success. The U.S. Naval Institute in the March 2016 “International Navies” issue of its monthly magazine Proceedings sums up the situation:

China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea, along with aggressive behavior in contested waters, continues to fuel international concern. Anti-access/area-denial capabilities remain a paramount priority. In 2015 China revealed that its antiship ballistic missile inventory now includes the 1,800-2,500 mile range DF-26 ballistic missile as well as the 1,000 mile range DF-21D.

By “land reclamation” the USNI means building new islands from which combat aircraft can operate. And the missile capabilities are clearly aimed at the American fleet. Beijing has made no secret of its desire to control the entire South and East China seas as sovereign territory. The Proceedings article goes on to describe China’s large-scale warship construction program that includes diesel and nuclear attack submarines, destroyers with the displacement of World War II cruisers, amphibious assault ships and a plan to build at least six aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan calls for a fleet no larger in 2035 than it was in 2000, as if the world has not already changed over the last decade and will not change further. Tight defense budgets, the only part of Federal spending that has been constrained during the profligate Obama years, is what is preventing the Navy from reaching its minimum goal of 310 warships. This goal is little more than half the fleet President Reagan built, but that his successors allowed to slip away.

To the surprise of many, the Obama administration is now actually mounting shows of force on three fronts in Asia. On March 1, the nuclear aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and its strike group, which included one of the Navy’s few remaining cruisers as well as several destroyers, and the command-flagship of the 7th Fleet, transited the Luzon Strait into the South China Sea. Though called “routine” the deployment of such a high-profile task force was clearly a step up from the prior deployment of individual ships into the area to contest China’s illegal claims. On March 4, the U.S. and Japan held joint exercise “Iron Fist 2016” on the California coast, with American Marines and Japanese soldiers practicing amphibious landings to recover islands under attack by an enemy, a scenario clearly aimed at countering Chinese aggression against disputed islands. On March 7, the U.S. and South Korea launched the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises involving over 300,000 Korean and 17,000 American troops to demonstrate alliance solidarity in the face of North Korean provocations. The two allies had also recently agreed to deploy the THAAD (Theater High Altitude Air Defense) system in South Korea which has an anti-missile capability meant to counter Pyongyang’s offensive ballistic missile program. China has protested the THAAD deployment.

One would think all this turmoil and saber rattling would merit mention in the presidential campaigns, but it has not. On the Republican side, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have all called for expanding the U.S. military, but in the context of providing a general deterrent against unidentified enemies. All three have made threats to use force against Islamic State and other terrorist threats, and to do so on a larger scale than President Obama has done; but dangers from rival major powers – whose ambitions and capabilities far exceed that of terrorists, are left unstated. On the Democratic side, defense policy is seldom mentioned in any context, though socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders talks about a “peaceful world” he can conjure out of thin air. It should be remembered, however, that as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led the “pivot to Asia” policy meant to contain China.

Only Trump mentions China by name on the stump, but in the context of the unbalanced trade relationship which has cost millions of American jobs and undermined the national industrial base. This is, of course, directly related to Beijing’s rise, as the ancient saying “strong economy, strong army” is still at the core of the global balance of power. American firms and consumers have sent over $3 trillion to China via the trade deficit in goods since 2005, plus billions more in capital investment, technology transfers and tax revenues. It is this flow of money and knowledge that has underpinned Beijing’s modernization, military buildup and territorial ambitions. The China threat has been largely “made in America” by corporate leaders who care more about private profit than national security; and who have bribed the political class who have the responsibility to think in broader terms to look the other way. If American voters need a blatant example of corruption, this is one of the most dangerous.

Sen. Rubio does mention China on his website, but in ambiguous ways. He states, “The U.S.-China relationship holds enormous potential. But that potential will never be realized while President Xi insists on pursuing policies that increasingly threaten U.S. national security and prevent China’s citizens from fulfilling their potential.” At one point he pledges to “protect the American economy” but later says, “In our international economy, the ability to trade is greater than it has ever been….China and America are the largest economies on earth. If our people are allowed to cooperate on their economic futures, it can only change the world for the better.” This is the refrain of a corporate lobbyist, not a supposed expert on national security.

The massive “Stop Trump” campaign being run by the “donor class” of the GOP Establishment primarily reflects corporate opposition to the change in trade policy the billionaire front-runner has promised to implement if elected. Rubio needs Establishment funding, so has to trim his sails on China. Yet, Trump has not made the connection between the transfer of wealth to China and Beijing’s aggressive behavior as directly as he should. The public needs to understand the larger strategic context of the campaign, but is not getting enough information on the stump about the most important duty of the next president; keeping the United States the preeminent power in the world system as China (and Russia) mount new challenges.

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.