The author is indebted to Richard Bush and Taylor Fravel for their comments.
During the U.S. presidential campaign and since Donald Trump’s election victory, the president-elect and a variety of pro-Trump advisers and supporters have made several highly unconventional and controversial remarks about China, the U.S. position in Asia, and America’s allies. These have ranged from skepticism regarding the value of Washington’s alliances with Japan and South Korea and the One China policy toward Taiwan to supposed commitments to implement trade tariffs against China, compel Beijing to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons, and build a 350-ship navy with which to deter Chinese “aggression,” especially regarding China’s disputes with other Asian states over maritime sovereignty issues.
It is unclear at this point to what extent (if at all) and in what ways the Trump administration will attempt to act on these views. Few of them have been explained in any detail, or with reference to the actual strengths and limitations confronting America in Asia now or in the future. Perhaps most importantly, none of them has included serious discussions of the likely consequences that would result from taking this or that specific action, based on known facts and reliable information.
This essay examines and assesses the logic and feasibility of the most important views of the Trump camp and its likely supporters with regard to the three most critical Asian security issues confronting the new U.S. administration: North Korea, Taiwan, and Asian maritime disputes and related U.S. military activities in the Western Pacific. It begins with a short baseline explanation of America’s overall core security interests in Asia, a description of the nature of the challenge posed by the three issue areas, and the requirements for developing an effective policy in each area. This is followed by a more detailed assessment of both known and probable views of Trump advisers and associates toward each issue, based in part on the preceding requirements, followed by an indication of what might constitute more effective policies for protecting U.S. interests. It concludes with a brief assessment of the implications of the conclusions reached.
America’s Security Interests and Challenges in Asia and the Importance of China
At the broadest level, the increasingly critical economic importance for the United States of the Asia-Pacific region as a market, investment destination, and source of capital and technology, combined with the fact that the region contains several close, long-standing democratic friends and allies, provides the rationale for a continued strong, active U.S. security presence. The purpose of that presence should be to maximize the conditions for long-term, beneficial Asian economic growth; to prevent the emergence of a hostile force that could use Asia’s strengths to threaten America; to keep open highly beneficial trans-Asian trade, investment, and technology routes to other regions; to support the security and prosperity of regional friends and allies; and to prevent the region from becoming a source of terrorism, WMD proliferation, and other global threats.
These key priorities or interests are made even more important by the fact that East Asia houses the most highly populated, rapidly developing major state in the world: China. Given its size, location, growing impact on the region and the world, and in some ways problematic stance toward the three security challenges discussed herein, pragmatic, cooperative U.S. relations with China will almost certainly become increasingly critical to the continued protection of all of Washington’s security interests in Asia. Indeed, the tenor of Washington’s relations with Beijing will largely determine whether Asia remains peaceful and productive or a growing source of tension and rivalry, and hence a drain on resources and a potential trigger of conflict.
As noted above, three specific, long-standing yet continuously evolving issues will likely pose the greatest challenge to American efforts to attain its security goals in Asia, and with regard to China in particular.
The first most pressing and arguably dangerous issue involves the possible emergence over the next several years of a nuclear-armed North Korea capable of striking U.S. territory, Japan, and of course South Korea. Given Pyongyang’s largely insular, aggressive, and insecure political leadership and its history of hostility toward both the United States and its two most critical allies in Asia (South Korea and Japan), either a nuclear-armed or an imploding North Korea could pose a major threat of conflict and WMD proliferation in Northeast Asia. It is imperative for Washington to work with others to either halt or end Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program during the next several years. This requires a clear understanding of the direct and indirect sources, strengths, and limits of American influence on Pyongyang’s policies, and on China, South Korea, and Japan, both now and in the future.
A second, potentially dangerous issue involves the possible future instability of the Taiwan-China relationship. The original normalization of relations between the United States and China over thirty years ago was founded on an understanding reached at that time between the two countries involving the political status of the Republic of China on Taiwan in relation to mainland China. Given the critical importance of that issue to the stability of U.S.-China relations and hence regional order, it is essential for Washington to manage relations with both Beijing and Taipei in ways that minimize the chances of future confrontations or conflict while sustaining mutually beneficial ties on all sides. This requires a clear understanding of the enduring bases for stability and instability in the China-Taiwan-U.S. relationship and the means available to the United States, now and over time, for maximizing the former while minimizing the latter.
The third most serious potential source of instability and conflict in Asia involves growing differences between the United States and China over the handling of long-standing but arguably worsening regional maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas between Beijing and several Asian states (including two U.S. allies—Japan and the Philippines). U.S. military activities near China can be added to this, such as surveillance and freedom-of-navigation operations, some in disputed waters. Although largely involving disputes over relatively insignificant land features and nearby waters or routine U.S. naval and air activities, these differences relate to larger questions of international maritime law, the use of military coercion or force, the growing impact of popular (and volatile) nationalism in the countries concerned, the overall balance of power in Asia, and the credibility of Washington’s security commitments to its allies. Managing this complex and potentially volatile issue requires a clear understanding of the stakes involved for all sides (both now and in the future), the likely foundations of long-term stability, and the likely resources available to the United States to manage this issue.
A Nuclear North Korea
Pyongyang’s ongoing development of a nuclear-weapons capability constitutes the most potentially volatile and pressing security issue in Asia. All efforts by South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States, and China to persuade, entice, or pressure North Korea to abandon its weapons program have thus far failed. In fact, according to some estimates, Pyongyang may be only a few years (or less) away from developing a miniaturized nuclear warhead and a reliable ballistic missile capable of threatening both its neighbors and U.S. territory.
In response to this growing crisis, some Trump supporters have suggested that Washington must now contemplate new, more drastic measures to compel Pyongyang to discard its nuclear weapons entirely. For many such observers, this should involve more determined U.S. efforts to force Beijing to exercise its supposedly decisive economic and political power over the North Korean leadership, a power presumably rooted in both its trade ties and long-standing Communist party-to-party and military-to-military links with the isolated regime. North Korea is hugely dependent on both Chinese food supplies and the sale of coal and other products to China, the argument goes, and would listen to serious threats leveled by its erstwhile comrade to either end such ties or denuclearize. Moreover, China allegedly has done little to compel North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons thus far and has attempted to downplay its considerable influence over the North. Thus, Washington needs to offer Beijing sufficient incentives or level sufficient threats to finally motivate it to coerce Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons, or failing that, to overthrow the North Korean regime.
What types of incentives or threats would motivate the Chinese leadership to alter its long-standing policy of caution toward North Korea and apply its supposedly overwhelming influence on the North is not entirely clear. One possibility discussed by some observers is the threat of a U.S. strike against Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities. Although raised in the past and largely dismissed, this type of threat has been revived recently as an essential and urgent measure to derail North Korea’s accelerated nuclear program. One version of this argument states that Washington would inform Beijing that unless it forces Pyongyang to disband its program by a certain date, the United States would destroy the facilities by force. Presumably, under this scenario, Beijing would prefer to undertake the risks associated with attempting to coerce Pyongyang rather than deal with a possible war on the Korean Peninsula.
This argument, and the entire use of force option against North Korea, is founded on a series of misperceptions and erroneous assumptions regarding Chinese and North Korean capabilities and beliefs, ignores South Korea’s role, and evinces a blatant disregard of the likely consequences of such an action.
First, China’s level of actual influence over North Korea is at best unknown but almost certainly far less than what it enjoyed in the past and is probably declining. Today, Beijing’s relations with the Kim Jong-un regime are tense and in many respects unfriendly. While at times publicly extolling the long-standing party and government ties between China and North Korea, the Chinese leadership in fact regards Kim as provocative, dangerous, and generally untrustworthy. He has purged and executed Beijing’s closest North Korean interlocutor and repeatedly ignored China’s urgings to comply with a series of UN Security Council resolutions. As a result, unlike his predecessors, Kim has yet to visit Beijing and has never met with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Although a security treaty still formally binds the two countries, Chinese officials have repeatedly suggested that Beijing does not regard itself as required to support Pyongyang in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, Beijing has steadily agreed to increasingly more onerous sanctions against the North, including the curtailment of a significant portion of its trade.
Given all these factors, it is highly likely that any high-pressure Chinese effort to persuade or compel Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons would fail, and would be met with defiance and hostility instead. In the past, Pyongyang has shown itself quite capable of enduring huge deprivations while remaining resolute and aggressive, given the repressive controls that the thuggish North Korean regime exercises over the populace and the military. One might argue that, under the above option, Beijing would be required to physically invade and overthrow the regime to halt its nuclear program, and that the United States should encourage or even try to compel such an action. But this is highly unlikely to occur, as Beijing knows such an act would almost certainly result in a war on the peninsula, and could possibly trigger the use of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, assuming they are usable. Beijing would certainly prefer that, if unavoidable, Washington should bear the enormous onus of initiating a war on the Korean Peninsula. It most definitely will not do so, regardless of the pressure Washington brings to bear.
Second, the above option entirely ignores South Korea’s role. As a U.S. ally and close security partner on the peninsula, Seoul would expect to be consulted and given a decisive say in any U.S. threat to attack North Korea. And absent clear evidence of a North Korean intent to attack the South and/or the United States, it is highly unlikely that Seoul would provide such consent. While South Korean governments have indicated that they will respond with force if attacked, there is virtually no support within the South Korean polity and society to initiate an attack on the North, despite its developing nuclear-weapons program.
If Washington were to ignore Seoul while attempting to leverage China with a threat of an attack on the North, South Korea would very likely refuse to allow bases within its territory to be used for such an action. More importantly, such a U.S. move would severely damage U.S.–South Korea relations and undermine the capacity of the two countries to effectively deter North Korea in the future. Moreover, there is little doubt that Beijing would be aware of Seoul’s likely stance and hence would almost certainly seek to ally with it to oppose the U.S. gambit, thus further undermining Washington’s position and the entire U.S.–South Korea alliance.
All of these considerations indicate that, rather than submit to U.S. pressure, Beijing would more likely threaten to intervene politically to support North Korea in the event of a U.S. attack while seeking to ally with Seoul to deter Washington.
Third, there is no doubt that a U.S. attack on North Korean nuclear facilities would result in a North Korean counterattack of some type. Such an attack would be an act of war, and Pyongyang would probably believe that both Washington and Seoul had initiated it, requiring a strike against both. Despite some deterioration over time, the North Korean military retains the assured capacity to do significant damage to South Korea, and especially Seoul, which lies within artillery range of the North. Knowing this, it is possible that a U.S. strike would also target North Korean forces near Seoul, thus certainly guaranteeing a peninsula-wide war. And any serious armed conflict on the peninsula would likely escalate rapidly, resulting in grievous harm to South Korea’s entire population and infrastructure.
Equally important, while the ultimate outcome of a war on the peninsula would not be in doubt, such an escalating conflict could also lead to both U.S./South Korean and Chinese armed forays into North Korea to stabilize the situation, thus posing a huge potential for further escalation and miscommunication, possibly leading to a Sino-American clash. Anyone who belittles these possibilities does not understand the level of distrust and insecurity operating on all sides, and the strong potential for misinterpretation of crisis signals among all the powers involved.
Given such likely disastrous consequences, it is possible that the United States would avoid a threat of attack and use other negative and positive incentives instead to elicit Chinese pressures against Pyongyang. But it is extremely difficult to see what other incentives the United States could realistically employ with Beijing. Some might argue that Washington could threaten to discard the One China policy regarding Taiwan (discussed below). But this would simply double the crises facing Washington, since, as argued below, Beijing is likely to regard such a threat as equivalent to a threat against the Chinese regime itself and respond accordingly. Conversely, Washington might attempt to entice Beijing by offering to acquiesce in Chinese efforts to coerce Taipei into submission. This would constitute a direct violation of domestic U.S. law (the Taiwan Relations Act) and a betrayal of a democratic friend with strong political allies in the U.S. government. It could also compel Taipei to revive its nuclear-weapons program.
Washington could perhaps offer to revoke its recent decision to work with Seoul to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) in South Korea, an action that Beijing stridently opposes. However, the THAAD deployment might be reversed altogether in any event, as a result of the likely removal from office of President Park Geun-hye, the system’s main proponent within South Korean political circles. Her opponents largely oppose THAAD. Plus, even if Park is not removed from office, it is unlikely that Beijing would regard an offer to abandon THAAD as a sufficient incentive to undertake the risks involved in pressuring Pyongyang.
The most attractive offer Washington could present to Beijing would probably consist of a strong U.S. commitment to negotiate a unified Korea, possibly one largely unaligned with the United States. One major reason that Beijing continues to oppose regime change in North Korea or the application of severe pressure on the regime is because it fears that the collapse of the North would result in a unified peninsula closely aligned with the United States and perhaps containing significant U.S. forces. Hence, a sincere and credible offer to negotiate a unified Korea, on terms acceptable to Beijing, could alter its calculus.
That said, such a negotiation would prove impossible without a prior South Korean acceptance, which would not be easy under present circumstances. Such an offer might be more compelling to Seoul if it’s linked to a larger strategy designed to create a stable overall balance of Sino-U.S./allied power across the Western Pacific. But the process involved in developing an internal U.S. consensus in support of such a strategy, and then implementing it, would almost certainly require many years. And Washington currently seems to be moving away from, rather than toward, such a region-wide strategy by apparently seeking to retain its historical dominance in maritime Asia.
Thus, over the next several years at least, Washington’s only realistic alternative to continuing to sanction Pyongyang for its misbehavior is to work with China, Japan, South Korea, and possibly Russia to offer a broad package of incentives to the North, including a peace treaty, diplomatic recognition, and a wide variety of economic benefits. These should be conditional and implemented incrementally, in return for Pyongyang halting its nuclear-weapons program, verifiably capping it, and eventually abandoning it.
Although a variety of such positive incentives have been offered in the past, they have never been combined into a single, comprehensive, authoritative, and credible package linked to a staged process of denuclearization. The advantage of such an approach over those discussed above is that it is far more likely to receive Chinese and South Korean support. Beijing has long called for such an approach. Moreover, if it is credibly offered and rejected by Pyongyang, China would have few reasons to resist an escalation of sanctions to include a virtual boycott of all economic and diplomatic contact with North Korea. And both Seoul and Beijing would likely prove more amenable to discussions of a unified Korea under such conditions.
The Taiwan Issue
In assessing U.S. policy toward Taiwan, it is essential to understand the strategic logic behind America’s long-standing One China policy, as well as the forces of Chinese nationalism that underlie Beijing’s acute sensitivity to a possible U.S. rejection of that policy. Washington’s formally stated assurance (made as a condition of Sino-American diplomatic normalization in 1979) that it acknowledges and by implication will not challenge the Chinese view that Taiwan is a part of China is not an obsolete concession granted to Beijing during a different time. It is a recognition of the enduring fact that Taiwan’s security and the maintenance of a cooperative U.S.-China relationship—an essential condition for the attainment of the above U.S. interests and objectives—depend in large part on the continued credibility of that assurance in the eyes of China and other Asian nations.
Virtually every Chinese person in mainland China views Taiwan as an indisputable part of China and the eventual reunification of the island with the mainland as a sacred task signifying the affirmation of China’s full recovery from its oft-mentioned “century of humiliation” at the hands of Japan and the West (Taiwan was seized from China as a result of the latter’s defeat in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War). Hence, preventing the permanent exclusion of Taiwan from the territory of mainland China is a vital Chinese national interest over which any Chinese government, Communist or not, would be willing to employ force to ensure. In other words, it bears crucially on the nationalist credentials and hence the legitimacy of the Chinese state.
For the Chinese, the ultimate political status of Taiwan is therefore not subject to significant compromise or negotiation, and any Chinese government that undertook such actions or, worse yet, acquiesced in U.S. efforts to support Taiwan independence would be attacked domestically and likely overthrown as traitorous. At the very least, any U.S. dilution or rejection of its long-standing assurance toward Beijing would inevitably damage the Sino-U.S. relationship severely and, unless reversed, would likely result in a Sino-U.S. military confrontation or conflict over the issue. And the first victim of such a damaging development would be Taiwan. Every U.S. administration since 1979 has recognized these facts, as do most Asian nations.
So, while Washington can and should maintain, or even improve, various types of unofficial contacts with Taiwan, attempts to dilute U.S. assurances by modifying or negotiating the One China policy, whether in words or deeds, would run strongly counter to American interests. That said, those interests certainly could change if Beijing clearly showed that it was committed to using force against Taiwan or to pushing the United States out of Asia. Indeed, the original U.S. assurance toward Beijing regarding the One China policy was premised on China’s own assurance that it would pursue as a priority the peaceful, negotiated reunification of the island with the mainland. It continues to assert that priority, while not categorically excluding the future use of force against Taiwan to prevent independence.
Many advocates, both within and outside the Trump camp, of a more confrontational, muscular policy toward China and, in some cases, of support for Taiwanese independence, believe that the Chinese commitment to seeking a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue as a priority is a subterfuge. They argue that China’s military modernization and deployment of missiles opposite Taiwan, its occasional bellicose statements toward Taiwan’s leaders, and its allegedly expansionist actions in the South China Sea and elsewhere (discussed below) clearly confirm Beijing’s intention to coerce and eventually seize Taiwan (and other claimed territories) by force. Presumably (for some), this is part of a larger strategy to push the United States out of Asia and militarily dominate the region. Hence, according to this argument, Washington must now regard Taiwan as a potential strategic asset in efforts to deter and diminish Chinese aggression, thus justifying its permanent separation from China and eventual use as an “unsinkable” aircraft carrier against Beijing.
An acceptance of this argument as a guide for U.S. policy toward Taiwan (and China) would be tantamount to an admission that a militarized Cold War with Beijing is inevitable and necessary. Such a notion would of course destroy over thirty-five years of productive and mutually beneficial relations with China, destabilize Asia, and thereby weaken a critical pillar of American growth and prosperity. So, the evidence supporting such a fundamental and costly shift in U.S. policy should be clear and overwhelming. But, that is far from the case.
As argued further below, Beijing continues to require a peaceful external environment for the success of its development goals, even over the long term. While employing its growing military capabilities to influence the calculations of other countries regarding its most vital national interests, it continues to remain averse to undertaking highly escalatory actions that would lead to sharp Sino-U.S. confrontations. It has largely limited its use of military and paramilitary assets to the defense of its claims regarding sovereignty issues, and even here, it generally moves cautiously and often (although not always) in reaction to perceived challenges (see below).
In the case of Taiwan, China’s criticism of Taiwanese leaders and its military deployments near the island are essentially designed to deter independence, not to prepare for invasion and war. While its ability to pressure Taiwan militarily has certainly grown, China’s capability to launch an overwhelming amphibious attack or to sustain a comprehensive blockade of the island is not in evidence. Also, in support of its commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, Beijing has in recent years undertaken a wide variety of mutually beneficial economic, cultural, and other initiatives toward the island.
While some of the above-mentioned assertive Chinese actions are certainly a cause of concern for the United States and others, they most assuredly do not amount to proof of a fundamental Chinese transition toward aggression and expansionism. Hence, the underlying logic and rationale for America’s One China policy remains strong and highly beneficial to U.S. interests.
That said, the Taiwan situation is certainly not free from serious instabilities that could challenge or threaten U.S. interests. China’s growing military and economic capabilities could one day be used to attempt to compel unification, if Beijing were to conclude that all efforts to move the island toward some type of sovereignty-based association had failed. One possible future danger is that Beijing might come to believe—as and if its economic, cultural, and political ties to Taiwan deepen—that U.S. arms sales to the island constitute the sole remaining factor preventing Taipei from opening political talks about the future disposition of Taiwan as a part of China. This belief could be reinforced by the notion that Beijing authorities have offered what they regard as very attractive incentives to Taipei to open such talks, as elements of a liberal version of the “one country, two systems” approach previously applied to Hong Kong. Taiwan could be seen by Beijing as resisting political talks only because it is continuing to receive both substantive and symbolic defense assistance from Washington, most notably in the form of arms sales. Serious efforts by Beijing to terminate or drastically reduce such assistance would likely generate a Sino-U.S. crisis.
For some observers in and out of the Trump camp, the response to such a possibility is to increase arms sales to Taiwan and greatly strengthen the U.S. military posture in the Western Pacific. Little of this is likely to occur, however, or to generate much effect, given both Taiwan’s continued inability to adequately absorb increasing levels of U.S. defense assistance and the fiscal and political factors that will continue to limit U.S. defense spending (discussed further below). A better alternative would be to reach an understanding with Beijing over mutual Sino-U.S. military deployments and defense sales directly related to Taiwan, as a means of minimizing a future crisis.
Such an understanding would also address the alternative danger that might occur in the future: Beijing concluding that, rather than moving toward China, Taiwan is in fact moving further away and resisting all efforts to open political talks, thus requiring more active deterrence measures. In fact, a growing portion of the Taiwanese populace does not identify politically with the mainland and rejects any type of “one country, two systems” approach. Under such circumstances, a Sino-U.S. understanding regarding force deployments relevant to Taiwan, combined with clear U.S. reaffirmations of its One China policy and its continued support for cross-strait contacts, could weaken arguments for using force in Chinese policy circles, in favor of a continued commitment to peaceful engagement with Taipei.
Maritime Disputes and U.S. Military Activities
Since roughly 2007–2008, Beijing has taken a more active, assertive stance toward its long-standing territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS). This has involved a wide variety of actions, including:
- Strong statements criticizing the actions and claims of other disputants, especially Japan (in the ECS) and Vietnam and the Philippines (in the SCS)
- The establishment of new administrative authorities charged with managing various aspects of the claimed land and sea features, such as the China Coast Guard and, in the South China Sea, Sansha City
- The deployment of greater numbers of both paramilitary and military naval and air assets and fishing trawlers into and near disputed areas in the ECS and SCS; in many cases, this has occurred as an attempt to assert administrative authority over contested areas, and, in the case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu (S/D) Islands, to challenge the existing authority of Japan
- The increased use of air and naval assets to challenge the activities of other claimants in disputed areas, and sometimes even in what are generally regarded as open ocean or within the exclusive economic zones of other nations
- The deployment of drilling rigs and survey ships in disputed areas
- The creation of artificial islands in the SCS and the construction of dual-use civilian-military facilities on those islands
- The establishment of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea that includes disputed territories
In addition, Beijing has also strongly criticized U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) activities along China’s mainland coast and within the SCS, and also opposed U.S. freedom-of-navigation (FON) operations undertaken in both areas.
In response to these and other similar activities, the United States has in recent years undertaken a variety of countermeasures, including:
- Strong formal statements opposing coercion or intimidation, the use or threat of force, violation of international law, and efforts to interfere with free navigation by any of the claimants
- Increased U.S. patrols, FON operations, nearby exercises, and ISR activities
- Enhancement of the capabilities of other disputants, especially the Philippines and Vietnam
- Direct discussions with and warnings to senior Chinese leaders
- Concerted public support for allies, including, in the case of the ECS, a clear statement of the applicability of the disputed S/D Islands to overall U.S. security treaty commitments to Japan
- Endorsement of the July 2016 ruling by the arbitration tribunal established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) supporting most of the Philippine government’s charges against China regarding the nature of specific land features within the SCS, and the legal status of China’s nine-dashed line
While not taking any formal position in support of any claimant’s sovereignty position, Washington has clearly focused the vast majority of its concern, and its actions since roughly 2007–2008, on Beijing. This has led many in China to conclude that the United States is actively supporting the other disputants while attempting to undermine China’s position and influence in the disputed areas.
The obvious danger presented by this situation is that increasing numbers of U.S. and Chinese air and naval assets operating in close proximity, or perceived provocations of various sorts including possible clashes between China and other disputants, could produce escalating crises. These might draw the United States into direct confrontation with Beijing, as all sides seek to convey their resolve in defending against real or imagined challenges.
This danger is further reinforced by the absence of any serious dialogue among the claimants and between the United States and China regarding limits on the level and type of militarization occurring in disputed maritime areas, and the failure of China (and to a lesser extent other disputants) to clarify its specific claims regarding various SCS waters. The resulting uncertainties stimulate worst casing, thus leading to further escalation. And of course the fact that sovereignty issues are generally zero-sum in nature and elicit strong nationalist emotions further adds to the dangers.
Within this environment, there is a strong belief in some quarters of the Trump camp and elsewhere that Beijing’s activities in disputed maritime areas are intentionally provocative, designed in part to test American (and allied) resolve. In the case of the SCS, China’s moves could be at the very least to eventually establish de facto control over the entire area as a prelude to then establishing formal sovereign authority over the land and waters within the so-called nine-dashed line. For a subset of these observers, China’s gradual enhancement of its control over disputed maritime areas is a first step toward the eventual ejection of the United States from the Western Pacific.
Given such presumed high stakes, some observers in and out of the Trump camp sharply criticize the above-outlined U.S. response as inadequate and tepid, and thus an encouragement to Beijing to become even more provocative. Some argue that Washington needs to increase greatly both its military assistance to the other claimants and its support for their claims, while also greatly augmenting its military presence in the Western Pacific. Only if the United States doubles down in these areas and becomes far more explicit about the consequences of further Chinese provocations will Beijing finally relent, the argument goes.
In truth, such simplistic solutions are largely based on a misreading of the fundamental dynamic at work in disputed maritime territories, and grossly overestimate the capacity of the United States to drastically ramp up its military presence and capabilities under current conditions to a level that would unambiguously overshadow Chinese capacities. They also overstate the likely commitment of the American people to support a deepening confrontation with Beijing over small, scattered, and largely unpopulated land features in the Western Pacific.
The historical dynamic at work involves an interactive tit-for-tat rivalry among the claimants, made possible by the absence of any clear and commonly accepted code of conduct (beyond the voluntary, nonbinding, and vague 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea) and driven by deep-seated suspicions and strongly felt nationalist impulses on all sides. In the SCS competition (which mainly regards the southern Spratly Islands, since China has firmly held the northern Paracel Islands for many years), Beijing is by far the biggest player. There, it is seeking to use its growing capabilities to more effectively defend and advance what it regards as its indisputable claims to the land features and undefined adjoining waters of the area, as well as certain also undefined historical rights. Other claimants are doing virtually the same thing, except their capabilities and claims are not as extensive, their actions not as effective, and hence their activities do not generate as much attention. In general, they are hopelessly outmatched by Beijing in this competition.
Most recently, however, Beijing has gone beyond a proportional tit-for-tat interaction to apparent attempts to establish itself as the dominant claimant in the Spratlys, arguably to deter future perceived provocations by others. Moreover, this impulse is driven even further by the fact that Beijing has historically held a very weak position in that area compared with Vietnam, the other claimant to the land features within the SCS. In the case of the ECS dispute with Japan, Beijing has also departed from its past basic tit-for-tat stance to apparently establish itself as an equal claimant to Tokyo, thereby supposedly correcting years of Japanese dominance over the S/D Islands. So, in Beijing’s view, much of its activities are intended to end the escalatory spirals and undoubtedly to improve its negotiating position in both maritime areas.
Regardless of its motives, China’s more recent, escalatory behavior has contributed significantly to the buildup in tensions in the disputed SCS and ECS areas. Beijing has refused to specify the precise nature of its claims both to individual land features and to the waters within the nine-dashed line in the SCS, and it has rejected the above-mentioned tribunal ruling (asserting that certain exceptions to such a ruling under UNCLOS Article 298 apply). Further, China seemed to assert the legal right of an archipelagic nation to draw boundary lines between the Paracel and perhaps the Spratly Islands in order to establish interior territorial waters, created sizable artificial islands with dual civilian-military facilities in the Spratlys, and regularly deployed a significant number of vessels and some aircraft near and sometimes into the territorial space of the S/D Islands. Due to all of this, many observers understandably assume the worst-case for China’s motives, ascribing them to the much larger, more aggressive and confrontational strategic motives outlined above.
This interpretation is purely speculative, however, and is certainly not confirmed by any authoritative Chinese statements or documents. In fact, China’s actions and statements can be most logically explained by the above interactive dynamic, which centers first and foremost on the maritime disputes themselves. Indeed, when measured against the metric of a supposed direct challenge to the U.S. position in Asia, Beijing’s actions seem cautious, even timid. It generally avoids the use of warships to assert its claims, has given assurances that it does not intend to militarize the Spratly Islands, and has certainly not attempted to seize land features held by other claimants to assure its control of the area. Moreover, Beijing continues to insist that it is dedicated to a peaceful, negotiated solution of the disputes and supports the peaceful objectives of the 2002 declaration. In general, it is attempting to increase its influence in both seas without increasing the chance of armed conflict with the United States.
This could all change, of course, as China’s power in the area increases, and those in and out of the Trump camp who call for a zero-sum confrontation with Beijing over the maritime disputes assert that it certainly will, because China’s caution thus far conceals its “real” expansionist and aggressive motives. Again, this is pure speculation, but of a dangerous sort, since if accepted as a basis for U.S. policy it would basically lock in a zero-sum interpretation of every assertive Chinese action, thereby justifying an equally zero-sum U.S. move in response. And of course, such actions would indeed cause Beijing to eventually adopt precisely the threatening motives that some observers insist (incorrectly) are already present.
Unfortunately, this type of overt and adversarial strategic competition is given significant impetus by the writings of the international media; the public interpretations of hardline pundits and “experts” in the United States, China, and other countries; and even some government officials on all sides. These sources already to a great extent seem to interpret every U.S. and Chinese statement and action of possible relevance to the disputed maritime areas as part of a titanic Sino-U.S. struggle for strategic dominance in Asia, thus pushing the two countries toward confrontation.
Beyond basing itself on a purely speculative and dangerous set of assumptions about Chinese motives, a zero-sum, confrontational argument calling for a doubling down of U.S. capabilities in the Western Pacific also employs another highly dubious (at best) set of assumptions regarding American and Chinese defense spending relevant to Asia. Barring an unlikely near-total collapse of the Chinese economy and/or a major surge in the overall U.S. GDP, Washington will not possess the capacity to greatly exceed the kind of military and economic capabilities that China will be able to bring to bear in its nearby maritime areas over the coming years. In fact, projections by scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and other reputable sources predict a much more likely movement toward parity between U.S. and Chinese capabilities in that region, in other words, a de facto strategic equilibrium.
Of course, the United States could devote a much larger share of its available economic resources to defense spending, and to spending in Asia in particular. That would likely require either considerable belt-tightening elsewhere, especially in vital social welfare areas, or a huge expansion in the government deficit. Neither of these is politically feasible, absent a truly major increase in public perceptions of the threat posed by China. Disputes over rocks and islands in the far reaches of Asia are unlikely to motivate such a level of alarm, unless a crisis in that region escalates to a genuine Sino-U.S. military clash of serious proportions. While certainly possible, such a hypothetical crisis should not be assumed and likely could not a priorialter threat perceptions.
Thus, given what is genuinely known about the capabilities and intentions of all sides in Asia’s maritime disputes, a more realistic and pragmatic U.S. approach should consist of efforts to keep speculations to a minimum, reduce or clearly limit militarization by all parties, increase confidence-building and crisis-avoidance/management mechanisms, and generally encourage by all means possible movement toward a binding or near-binding code of conduct. This code could be based on a reassertion, an expansion, and a more detailed enunciation of the peaceful principles and unacceptable forms of behavior already agreed upon in the 2002 declaration.
This will require a serious diplomatic dialogue aimed at establishing mutually acceptable restraints based on strong U.S. deterrence signals, not a near-term doubling down on military deployments, a drastic increase in defense assistance to those powers opposing China, or a drawing of high stakes “lines in the sand” directed at Beijing. The latter should involve clear indications of the adverse consequences for China (and for regional stability) that would result from a failure to reach an agreement, including possibly some of the extreme zero-sum actions summarized above. Only by reaching an understanding on mutual limits and behavioral restraints between China, the other claimants, and the United States will the maritime disputes in the Western Pacific be stabilized.
The above assessment strongly indicates that any serious effort to implement the proposals or ideas for dealing with the three most serious security challenges confronting the United States in Asia from Donald Trump or his advisers could lead to disastrous consequences. These include the possibility of a war on the Korean Peninsula, an armed conflict with China, or at the very least, the emergence of an otherwise avoidable Sino-American Cold War. Needless to say, all of these outcomes would fundamentally undermine American interests in Asia and the world and would endanger the lives and fortunes of many Americans, Asians, and other citizens across the region and perhaps beyond.
As shown above, such proposals or ideas are based on a serious misunderstanding of both the attitudes, assumptions, and interests motivating China, South Korea, Japan, and other relevant actors, and the relative present-day and likely future economic and military capabilities of the United States, its allies, and China. Doubling down on U.S. and allied military capabilities directed against China, the overturning of long-standing and still highly relevant foundational understandings between Beijing and Washington, and bombastic posturing and threats that neglect the interests and views of U.S. regional friends and allies do not constitute viable options for the United States. And they also most likely do not reflect the desires of many Americans, including many Trump supporters, who wish to avoid future American military adventurism overseas.
Moreover, far more effective and less dangerous alternatives to such actions exist that do not simply amount to a continuation of the status quo in every instance. These involve the creation of incentives and leverage designed to elicit support within the United States and among China and other Asian powers for movement toward a stable balance of power in the Western Pacific, based on clear understandings of restraint and resolve by all parties. This would require a reversal of the current trend in many Chinese, U.S., and some (not all) allied policy circles toward an ever-greater reliance on military and economic might in support of increasingly zero-sum calculations, instead toward a far more realistic acknowledgement of the emerging balance of power in Asia and the need to stabilize, not destabilize, that balance.
Unfortunately, such recognition, or any other alternative to the above notions, appears unlikely to result, if ever, from counterarguments of the sort presented above, especially under a Trump administration that is dedicated to challenging and overturning most expert opinions on foreign policy issues. It is more likely that movement toward a more realistic and feasible approach to the three security challenges discussed in this essay will occur as a result of a mind-clarifying collision of Trumpian notions with reality, in the form of the actions or reactions of China and other Asian powers, including U.S. allies. Given the possible dire results of such a collision, this could prove to be a very costly lesson. It is hoped that the new administration will think carefully and consult thoroughly with a wide range of experienced specialists, diplomats, and government practitioners, past and present, before undertaking the radical actions examined above. That said, hope is a very thin reed upon which to rest such high stakes issues.