Halting China’s free ride

Trump won’t abide Obama’s fawning approach to trade.

By Brahma Chellaney, Washington Times

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President-elect Donald Trump ran an election campaign that challenged American diplomacy’s long-standing principles and shibboleths. Since his election triumph, Mr. Trump is already rewriting the rules of the presidency and signaling that his foreign policy approach will be unconventional.

Even before assuming office, Mr. Trump has moved away from President Obama’s foreign policy approach by staking out starkly different positions on several sensitive subjects, including China, Taiwan, Israel, terrorism and nuclear weapons. A Trump presidency may not bring seismic shifts in American policy but it is likely to lead to significant change in U.S. priorities, geopolitical focus and goals as well as in the tools Washington would be willing to employ to help achieve its desired objectives.

No country faces a bigger challenge from Mr. Trump’s ascension to power than China, which has been flexing its military and economic muscles more strongly than ever. After the Obama administration’s obsequious stance, Beijing must brace up and face an assertive new national security and economic team in Washington that is unlikely to put up with its covert territorial expansion and trade manipulation.

Mr. Trump has signaled a need to recalibrate foreign policy by shifting its geopolitical focus from Russia, a declining power with a contracting economy, to the increasingly muscular and openly revisionist China. Unlike Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, China’s territorial revisionism, as illustrated in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, is creeping and incremental yet relentless.

Mr. Trump’s focus on China and Islamic radicalism indicates that, far from retreating from Asia and the Middle East, America is likely to play a sharper, more concentrated role. For example, the U.S. military could carry out more significant reconnaissance and freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea to help deter Chinese aggression.

To countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies, the Obama administration’s reluctance to challenge Beijing forced several of them to tread with excessive caution around Chinese concerns and interests. A wake-up call came with Mr. Obama’s silence about the 2012 Chinese capture of the Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Washington did nothing in response to the capture, despite its mutual-defense treaty with the Philippines.

That inaction helped spur China’s frenzied creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea. In late 2013, when China unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone covering territories it claims but does not control in the East China Sea, Mr. Obama again hesitated, effectively condoning the action. And recently, his meek response to what Mr. Trump called “an unprecedented act” — China’s daring seizure of a U.S. underwater drone — advertised American weakness.

In the dying days of the Obama administration, an emboldened China is rushing more missiles to its man-made islands in the South China Sea, where, on Mr. Obama’s watch, it has built seven islands and militarized them in an attempt to annex a strategically crucial corridor through which half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes.

China has demonstrated that defiant unilateralism is cost-free — but it knows that its free ride is about to end, with Mr. Trump willing to adopt a tougher and less predictable line toward it. This is apparent from Mr. Trump’s suggestion, after taking a phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, that a “one-China” policy is no sacred cow for him. Mr. Trump’s economic nationalism also holds greater implications for China than probably for any other country.

By subsidizing exports and impeding imports, China has long waged an economic war against other major economies. The Obama administration’s announcement last April of a deal under which China would scrap export subsidies on some products, largely agricultural items and textiles, drew skepticism in the markets because it did not cover major exports, including steel. It also left intact other forms of state support to the Chinese industry.

Mr. Trump is unlikely to give China a free pass on its trade manipulation. Trade is one area where Mr. Trump must deliver on his campaign promises or risk losing his credibility with the blue-collar constituency that helped propel him to victory. He is threatening to slap punitive tariffs on China for what he described during the campaign as “the greatest theft in the history of the world”.

Mr. Trump is unlikely to be deterred by the specter of a trade war with China for the simple reason that Beijing is already waging an economic war. In fact, Mr. Trump’s likely argument for a tough China stance will be that Beijing’s one-sided economic war must be halted. Such a policy approach is also apparent from some of his appointments, including economist Peter Navarro, the author of “Death By China,” “The Coming China Wars,” and “Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the Rest of the World.”

U.S.-China ties could be in for a rough patch for another reason: Mr. Trump could pivot to Asia in a way Mr. Obama did not. Mr. Obama’s failure to provide strategic heft left his Asia pivot unhinged.

To be sure, Mr. Trump is likely to face resistance to recalibrating U.S. foreign policy from two powerful lobbies in Washington — a large tribe of “panda huggers” and the old establishment figures who spent their formative years during the Cold War obsessing with the Soviet threat and now see Russian President Vladimir Putin as the epitome of evil.

Mr. Trump’s task is made more onerous by a mainstream media that remains hostile to him despite its epic failure to anticipate or predict the election outcome.

Still, a determined Donald Trump is likely to reorient U.S. foreign policy in potentially momentous ways.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.

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