A test of wills between Washington and Beijing

A test of wills between Washington and Beijing
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE and his no-nonsense national security team are gradually making it clear that the era of strategic patience and wishful thinking regarding China’s aggressive behavior is over.

On Asia’s major flashpoints — North Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea — the Trump administration is far less inclined than its predecessors to look the other way as threats have mounted. (A parallel economic pushback is under way with the imposition of sanctions for China’s unfair trade practices.)

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Beijing, in turn, has decided to test the Trump team’s foreign policy acumen and will, by reaffirming its declared “red lines” and revealing a partially-hidden one while warning Washington against crossing any of them.

 

On North Korea, the People’s Republic exposed its true strategic intentions after decades of professing that it shared the West’s concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs — despite Beijing’s equally-long complicity in them. China’s economic and diplomatic support have kept successive Kim regimes in power and solvent enough to pursue the acquisition and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Yet, Beijing refrained from exercising its unique leverage over Pyongyang, insisting that Washington had to solve the problem. Now that President Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un are poised to talk about ending North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, China wants to preserve the status quo that gave it enormous leverage over the West because of its perceived role as an indispensable partner in the long-running denuclearization saga. And it surely wants to abort any course that could lead to peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula under a democratic system.

On the South China Sea, Beijing has expanded its militarization of the islands it created by destroying entire coral reefs, despite Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s promise to Trump last year that China would not continue that aggressive and environmentally destructive activity.

The United States has responded by upgrading its Freedom of Navigation Operations in the region. It appears to have discarded the Obama administration’s “innocent passages” charade that purported to contest the Chinese claims but implicitly conceded Chinese maritime sovereignty by refraining from normal naval activities permitted under international law on the high seas.

Now, the U.S. Navy steams unapologetically through the seas surrounding those unlawful militarized outcroppings and Beijing is on notice about interfering with such lawful maritime activities. At the recent regional security conference in Singapore, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisHillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — Facebook bug exposed photos of up to 6.8M users | Canada warns Trump not to intervene in Huawei case | Tech giant accused of providing cybersecurity to terror groups Canada warns Trump: Huawei extradition shouldn't be ‘politicized’ Overnight Defense: Pompeo downplays split over Saudi Arabia | Priebus tapped for Navy after Mattis recommendation | North Korea reportedly evading US sanctions MORE signaled that the West has run out of patience with China’s campaign of “intimidation and coercion.”

Regarding Taiwan, Beijing has escalated its rhetoric, diplomatic and economic pressures, and military demonstrations against the Taiwanese. In response, the Trump administration expressed sympathy for Taiwan’s democratic dignity. Encouraged by congressional resolutions last year, it also has publicly mulled over more tangible ways to show support, such as having the U.S. Navy make calls at Taiwan’s ports. That has not happened since President Jimmy Carter abrogated the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1979.

Another use of the U.S. Navy is too little exercised: transits of the Taiwan Strait. Japan triggered World War II in the Pacific not only by attacking Pearl Harbor from aircraft carriers at sea, but also by assaulting the Philippines from the then-Japanese island of Formosa, which Gen. Douglas MacArthur dubbed an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”

Within a few years, Washington lost interest in the region. American absence from the Strait and official statements excluding Taiwan and South Korea from the U.S. defense perimeter were a green light for North Korea, with support of Communist China and the Soviet Union, to invade South Korea in June 1950. The Seventh Fleet was rushed back into the Taiwan Strait. As Henry Kissinger wrote, “We didn’t expect the invasion; China didn’t expect our response.”

The Navy kept the peace in the Strait until President Richard Nixon pulled it out in a unilateral goodwill gesture to China to set the mood for his historic visit to Beijing in 1972. It stayed out until the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait missile firing crisis. President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonOcasio-Cortez: By Lindsey Graham's 1999 standard for Clinton, Trump should be impeached A missed opportunity for Democrats in the border wall showdown Dem pollster blames Gingrich for current partisan strife MORE sent the USS Nimitz battle group through the Strait to deter further Chinese aggression against Taiwan.

The healthy deterrence message soon got muddled when Beijing vehemently objected to the passage and Washington “explained” that it had been merely a weather diversion. U.S. resolution was further watered down when Assistant Defense Secretary Joseph Nye, asked by People’s Liberation Army counterparts how Washington would react if China outright attacked Taiwan, said, “It would depend on the circumstances.”

A few months later, as Taiwan held its first direct presidential election, China again fired missiles across the Strait, and this time Clinton sent the Nimitz and the Independence to the region. Beijing threatened a “sea of fire” if the carriers entered the Strait. They stayed out, and the Navy did not return to the Strait until 2005 when the Department of Defense realized the Navy had been avoiding the Strait because of Chinese sensitivities and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld directed transits to resume.

In 2007, after Beijing cancelled a Thanksgiving Navy port call to Hong Kong, the USS Kitty Hawk passed through the Strait and China raised its usual fiery objection. Admiral Timothy Keating replied that the U.S. Navy “does not need China’s permission to pass through these international waters and will do so any time we need to — correct that, any time we want to.”

Since then, however, as China’s economic and military power have grown, and as U.S. officials nevertheless convinced themselves that the China threat was exaggerated, U.S. Navy passages through the Strait have been few and far between.

As Washington has revived consideration of a carrier battle group again passing through the Strait, Beijing has again warned of unspecified adverse consequences to the U.S.-China relationship. But with President Trump’s summit meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12, additional U.S. security measures are certainly warranted. A Strait transit would be a normal operational precaution, and is all the more essential now that Beijing has prohibited it.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010.  He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.