U.S. China critics are celebrating their recent victory – the Trump administration’s cancellation of the participation of U.S. warships and senior military officials in a multinational Naval Review to be hosted by China. While only symbolic, this is a clear victory for U.S. China hardliners. They have long been clamoring for tougher actions by the Trump administration against China and it appears they have finally gotten their wish. Indeed, this public snub probably marks a significant downward inflection in U.S.-China military relations for the remainder of the Trump administration. Moreover, it may presage more dangerous U.S.-China military interactions.
China had officially invited the United States to participate in ceremonies marking the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. About 60 countries will participate and about 12 will send naval vessels, including U.S. allies like France, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. But the U.S. State Department argued against any such American participation, claiming that doing so would bolster Beijing’s international standing. Although the decision supposedly came from the State Department, one can assume U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton supported it. He recently declared that “[China’s] behavior needs to be adjusted in the trade area, in the international, military and political areas, in a whole range of areas.”
This U.S. snub marks a victory for those who argue that such “exchanges” have not improved Chinese military behavior, especially in the South China Sea, and that China is a “threat” to the United States and the world. Some see war as inevitable.
As Zhang Baohui, director of Lingnan University’s Center for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong, said, the decision not to send any warships or senior officials to the anniversary “is definitely a sign of tougher [U.S.] policies toward China.” Zhang pointed out that “In the past, it was the U.S. that tried to establish steady military-to-military relations between the two countries…Now, the Trump administration has targeted China as a strategic competitor and the policy is competition rather than engagement.
“In that context, trust-building falls by the wayside.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R –Oklahoma) was among the many who was elated by the decision. Inhofe said that “America’s Navy is busy enough confronting the challenges posed by China’s aggression in the South China Sea and other critical aspects of great power competition without the distraction of participating in communist pageantry.”
The decision was also hailed by frequent China critic retired Navy Captain Jim Fanell who said the presence of U.S. Navy warships would “legitimize the PLA Navy’s bad behavior at sea.” The jubilation was joined by Rick Fisher of the Global Taiwan Institute, who declared, “The Chinese Communist Party is the greatest murder machine in human history and is now gathering an existential threat to the United States and all free societies. There should be no American gesture to celebrate its 70th anniversary.” All these comments were gathered in an article by noted U.S. China hardliner Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon.
When this snub is combined with the expected sale of F-16s to Taiwan, China and the world will clearly see which way the wind is blowing in Washington.
In the run up to President Donald Trump’s inauguration, advocates of a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy toward China unleashed a barrage of hawkish commentaries and proposals. Much of this commentary focused on China’s behavior in the South China Sea. These statements by incoming government leaders and influence peddlers provided an opportunity for America’s China hawks to promote their views. Gordon Chang, a long-time “crier of wolf” regarding China, hoped that there would be a fundamental change in American foreign policy toward China: “We’ve empowered the worst elements of the Chinese political system by showing them that aggression works,” Chang said just ahead of Trump’s inauguration.
This campaign has now moved the needle of U.S.-China relations into the danger zone.
U.S.-China relations analysts have been warning of this creeping political “climate change” in Washington for some time. In particular, they say it is spilling over into the sphere of policy analysis. As former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has observed, “[T]he public space for open considered debate and discussion on the China question is shrinking as name-calling grows.”
“We also need to be wary of the emergence of any form of new McCarthyism, whereby anyone seeking to explain the complexity of China’s rise is simply accused of ‘un-American’ activities,” Rudd added. “…There are already tremors of this emerging around the edges of the foreign and strategic policy community, including think tanks and the academy.”
The most recent canary in the coal mine is Susan Shirk, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. She warns that “[r]ight now there is a herding instinct in the U.S. that is taking us off the cliff with various forms of overreaction to China as a security threat, an intelligence threat, a spy threat, a technological threat, and influence threat.”
Making matters worse, some extremists in China are now responding to the “China threat campaign” in kind. They have called for China to “be prepared to throw punches.” Some specifically suggest attacks on U.S. Navy ships challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea.
Both sides have extremists. But the difference is that China’s warmongers have so far had little effect on Beijing’s policy, while the extremists in the United States have moved Washington’s position from engagement to hardline strategic competition.
The U.S. decision not to attend the Naval Review may be counterproductive. China is expected to showcase its new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines there. By not participating, the United States foregoes the opportunity to both selectively show off its more advanced capabilities to intimidate potential opponents — including the host — and to detect close up their weaknesses. This is clearly a case of “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” But there are likely to be more such instances as this more confrontational Trumpian China policy moves forward.
Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.