Towards High Noon in U.S.-China Relations

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson concluded his maiden visit to China on March 19 in cordial tones and warm handshakes. 

Following his talks with President Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese leaders on March 19, Tillerson said he placed "very high value” on communications and diplomacy between the United States and China. 

But whilst extolling the virtues of diplomacy between the two countries, Tillerson may also have missed a strategic opportunity to place Beijing on notice – namely, that America will no longer tolerate China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and, more generally, in the western Pacific. 

While America’s Far East policy is understandably preoccupied with countering North Korea’s serial nuclear and missile provocations against South Korea and Japan, it is China’s continuing push in the region that arguably poses a more serious and long-term risk to America’s Far Eastern alliances and geostrategic influence in the western Pacific.

What to do?

The Trump administration could consider the following steps: 

Establish deterrence: The administration should, first of all, jettison former President Obama’s policy of vacillation and wishful thinking in America’s policy against China’s encroachment and militarization of maritime and air spaces in the Far East and Western Pacific regions.

Secondly, the administration should craft and implement a clear, bold and bipartisan “Pacific Doctrine” which would stipulate the following:

Any attempt by an outside or a regional power to impede, block or jeopardize America’s freedom to navigate or overfly any of the maritime spaces in the western Pacific, at any time or anywhere, including the South China Sea, now or in the future, (a) will be resisted by force, and (b) that America will seek to impose an unmistakable military defeat on the aggressor to preserve and protect America’s access and alliances in the aforementioned regions.

A clearly articulated and nationally agreed doctrine along these lines would not only proclaim America’s purpose, but at an operational level, establish, for the first time, red-lines and explicit deterrence vis-à-vis the Chinese regime, much like the Truman doctrine of 1947 which laid the foundations for the historically successful containment policy against the Soviet Union.

Military strategy: The Obama administration’s belated and hesitating response to China’s militarization and island-building activities in the South China Sea was based on a few, largely toothless “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs) by U.S. Navy vessels.

Not only did China’s decision makers remain unimpressed by such antics, but also such weak signaling may have inadvertently misled Chinese generals and admirals into believing that America increasingly has neither the national will nor the wherewithal to counter China’s ascendant military might. The Chinese Navy’s brazen seizure of a U.S. naval drone in international waters off the coast of Philippines in December, which elicited no more than a muted diplomatic protest by the Obama administration, will have reaffirmed the Chinese general staff's calculations that it can safely continue to push, probe and embarrass the United States with impunity.

To dispel any such misperceptions or ideas about U.S. weakness in Chinese minds, the Trump administration should boldly consider forward deployments of U.S. naval and air forces (a) throughout the South China Sea and (b) in contested maritime and air spaces in the western Pacific. These deployments would be backed by explicit public warnings that any deliberate interference with, or unsafe maneuvering, near U.S. forces by Chinese ships or aircraft will draw American fire. This should, at a minimum, place China’s military leaders on firm notice that the days when America repeatedly turned the other cheek at Chinese bullying are firmly over.

Diplomacy: Engaging China through traditional diplomacy, however, must remain a constant in America’s foreign policy. Richard Nixon, before he became president, wrote presciently in Foreign Affairs in 1967 about the need to engage with China, warning that the world’s most populous country cornered in “angry isolation” posed a regional and global danger. “We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.”

A half-century has elapsed since Nixon offered his geopolitical vision. China is now an economic powerhouse, deeply engaged in the global economy and armed with nuclear weapons.

It remains a glaring and disturbing fact that despite the countless trade, commercial and diplomatic ties that inextricably bind the America and China together, none of these have turned China into a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs. Its behavior, on the contrary, has increasingly grown to resemble that of an aspiring, belligerent power seeking to displace and overthrow the existing international order. Think Wilhelmine Germany.

So good luck to Mr. Tillerson for his diplomacy to engage with, moderate and find common grounds with China where possible. However, armed strength being the ultima ratio regum of statecraft, America should also now load its guns against China.

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