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Issue #1764      February 8, 2017

A war with China?

In his January 13 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson made an extraordinary comment concerning China’s activities in the South China Sea. The US, he said, must “send a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops,” adding that Beijing’s “access to those islands is not going to be allowed.”

China’s commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Wu Shengli, told US Admiral John Richardson that “we will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands halfway.”

President Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated the threat on January 24.

Sometimes it is hard to sift the real from the magical in the Trump administration, and bombast appears to be the default strategy of the day. But people should be clear about what would happen if the US actually tries to blockade China from supplying its forces constructing airfields and radar facilities on the Spratly and Paracel islands.

It would be an act of war.

Last summer, China’s commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Wu Shengli, told US Admiral John Richardson that “we will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands halfway.” Nansha is China’s name for the Spratlys. Two weeks later, Chang Wanquan, China’s Defence Minister, said Beijing is preparing for a “people’s war at sea.”

In fact, the US is in the middle of a major military build-up, the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot” in the Pacific. American bases in Okinawa, Japan, and Guam have been beefed up, and for the first time since World War II, US Marines have been deployed in Australia. Last March, the US sent B-2 nuclear-capable strategic stealth bombers to join them.

Roots of current tensions

The current crisis has its roots in a tense standoff between Beijing and Taiwan in late 1996. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was angered that Washington had granted a visa to Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui, calling it a violation of the 1979 US “One China” policy that recognised the PRC and downgraded relations with Taiwan to “unofficial.”

Beijing responded to the visa uproar by firing missiles near a small Taiwan-controlled island and moving some military forces up to the mainland coast facing the island. However, there was never any danger that China would actually attack Taiwan.

The Straits crisis led to a radical remaking of China’s military, which had long relied on massive land forces. Instead, China adopted a strategy called “Area Denial” that would allow Beijing to control the waters surrounding its coast, in particular the East and South China seas.

China is particularly vulnerable to a naval blockade. Some 80 percent of its energy supplies traverse the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, moving through narrow choke points like the Malacca Straits between Indonesia and Malaysia, the Bab al Mandab Straits controlling the Red Sea, and the Straits of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. All of those passages are controlled by the US or countries like India and Indonesia with close ties to Washington.

In 2013, China claimed it had historic rights to the region and issued its now famous “nine-dash line” map that embraced the Paracels and Spratly island chains and 85 percent of the South China Sea. It was this nine-dash line that the Hague tribunal rejected, because it found no historical basis for China’s claim, and because there were overlapping assertions by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.

There are, of course, economic considerations. The region is rich in oil, gas, and fish, but the primary concern for China is security. The Chinese have not interfered with commercial ship traffic, although they have applied on-again, off-again restrictions on fishing and energy explorations. China initially prevented Filipino fishermen from exploiting some reefs, and then allowed it. It has been more aggressive with Vietnam in the Paracels.

The US has some 400 military bases surrounding China and is deploying anti-ballistic missiles in South Korea and Japan, ostensibly to guard against North Korean nuclear weapons. But the interceptors could also down Chinese missiles, posing a threat to Beijing’s nuclear deterrence.

Enter Trump

The Trump administration has opened a broad front on China, questioning the “One China” policy, accusing Beijing of being in cahoots with Islamic terrorists, and threatening a trade war. The first would upend more than 30 years of diplomacy, the second is bizarre – if anything, China is overly aggressive in suppressing terrorism in its western Xinjiang Province – and the third makes no sense.

China is the US’s major trading partner and holds US$1.24 trillion in US Treasury Bonds. While Trump charges that the Chinese have hollowed out the American economy by undermining its industrial base with cheap labour and goods, China did not force Apple or General Motors to pull up stakes and decamp elsewhere. Capital goes where wages are low and unions are weak.

A trade war would hurt China, but it would also hurt the US and the global economy as well.

When President Trump says he wants to Make America Great Again, what he really means is that he wants to go back to that post-World War II period when the US dominated much of the globe with a combination of economic strength and military power. But that era is gone, and dreams of a unipolar world run by Washington are a hallucination.

According to the CIA, “by 2030 Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power based on GDP, population size, military spending and technological investments.” By 2025, two-thirds of the world will live in Asia, 7 percent in Europe and 5 percent in the US. Those are the demographics of eclipse.

If Trump starts a trade war, he will find little support among America’s allies. China is the number one trading partner for Japan, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, and India, and the third largest for Indonesia and the Philippines. Over the past year, a number of countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines have also distanced themselves from Washington and moved closer to China. When President Obama tried to get US allies not to sign on to China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, they ignored him.

But the decline of US influence has a dangerous side. Washington may not be able to dictate the world’s economy, but it has immense military power. Chinese military expert Yang Chengjun says “China does not stir up troubles, but we are not afraid of them when they come.”

Information Clearing House

Next article – Trumpites’ all-out attack on unions

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