Originally published at AsianCorrespondent.com on 22nd February 2017
AFTER just one month in the White House, the new Trump administration has been making dramatic headlines on an almost daily basis, and it’s becoming clear that the coming four years will be both unconventional and unpredictable.
During his first four weeks, President Donald Trump has broken protocols, questioned the U.S.’s stance on critical foreign issues and disregarded decades-old policies. The current administration’s stance on many issues is ambiguous and unclear. For sensitive regions of the world, such as the Middle East and South China Sea, Trump’s unpredictable nature, which was on full display during a recent 75-minute ‘unhinged’ press conference, could raise tensions and ultimately lead to armed-conflict.
Trump’s apparent lack of tact was evident in a heated conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, during which Trump hung up on the Australian leader. If such behaviour were displayed during communications with Beijing, relations between two of the world’s superpowers could seriously deteriorate.
Given the president’s habit of going off script, it was sensible that Trump’s first direct communications with the Chinese leadership took the form of a careful scripted communication followed by a short telephone conversation.
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It is also worth noting that these initial communications between Trump and Beijing took three weeks to orchestrate and only took place after Trump had formally accepted the conditions of the One China policy. While many world leaders were scrambling to build relations with the U.S.’s new commander-in-chief, China opted to stay patient, forcing Trump to bend to Beijing’s wishes.
The Chinese leadership has won the first ‘battle’ with the Trump’s administration, and the U.S. presidency has been labeled a ‘paper tiger’ by Chinese media. Although it is unlikely that the former reality TV star will continue to be restrained to such uncharacteristic communications for long.
As the past weeks have indicated, the responsibilities of commander-in-chief have not diluted the former reality TV star’s controversial agenda, as his executive orders to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. clearly testify. For Beijing to write off Trump as a president of talk and no action would be dangerous.
Residents in Asia have every reason to be concerned about Trump’s confrontational language towards China.
During his election campaign Trump accused China of “raping” the U.S. with unfair trade policies and has threatened to impose hefty taxes and tariffs on Chinese imports, suggesting a trade war is imminent. On the topic of China’s expansionist ambitions, which have seen the country militarise seven islands across the South China Sea, Trump accused former President Barack Obama, and his administration, of being soft on China.
Trump’s inner circle have further reinforced the president’s views on China, with White House spokesman Sean Spicer telling the media that the United States would prevent China from taking over territory in international waters in the South China Sea.
“It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”
Spicer’s remarks echoed a statement made by Rex Tillerson, now Secretary of State, which warned China that the United States would block access to the islands China had built and installed weapons systems on.
Spicer’s comments were responded to quickly by Beijing, with ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying telling a news conference, “The United States is not a country directly involved in the South China Sea,” adding, “We urge the United States to respect facts and speak and act cautiously to avoid damaging peace and stability in the area.”
Mira Rapp-Hooper, a South China Sea expert at the Center for a New American Security, called the threats to bar China’s access in the South China Sea “incredible” and explained in international law there was no basis for these proposed actions, “A blockade — which is what would be required to actually bar access — is an act of war,”
This confrontational attitude towards China mirrors the opinions of Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist at the White House, and former former head of far-right news website Breitbart.
In March 2016, Bannon, who is widely considered to be the most influential individual in Trump’s administration, confidently announced, “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years … There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face – and you understand how important face is – and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.”
Despite the horrors of war, there remain further reasons that may encourage Trump to enter an armed-conflict in the South China Sea.
Firstly, war creates billions of dollars in profit for big business, such as those corporations which Trump and his Cabinet of billionaires are so intricately intertwined.
Secondly, conflict serves political purposes such as boosting nationalist sentiment, distracting voters from problems closer to home, and presidents at war are more likely to be re-elected for a second term – to get the job done. It is also worth remembering that Trump will be keen to create a powerful legacy during his time in office, confronting China in armed conflict would certainly confirm his place in the history books.
News from China also indicates that observers are well aware of the possibilities of conflict breaking out during the coming four years. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, China’s military warned that war between the two countries was a real possibility. “A ‘war within the president’s term’ or ‘war breaking out tonight’ are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality,” an official wrote on the website of the People’s Liberation Army.
China’s military capability, has dramatically developed during President Xi Jinping’s tenure. A report released last week by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said that China’s official defense budget is US$145 billion, and that China is reaching “near-parity” with the West in terms of military technology.
According to IISS director, John Chipman, “China’s military progress highlights that Western dominance in the field of advanced weapons systems can no longer be taken for granted.”
The report also revealed that one of China’s air-to-air missiles had no Western equivalent and that China had introduced a type of short-range missile which, “only a handful of leading aerospace nations are able to develop”.
While some observers will argue that talk of conflict in the South China Sea is scaremongering, it’s important to remember that we are living in unprecedented times. With a Secretary of State and Chief White House Strategist apparently prepared to challenge China’s expansionist actions and a U.S. President who’s behaviour remains completely unpredictable, there is every reason to worry about conflict breaking out, here in Asia.