US-China trade war masks worrying military buildup

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US-China trade war masks worrying military buildup

US Vice President Mike Pence. (Reuters)

The tension around trade at the G20 summit last week masked a more troublesome reality —the unyielding nature of the competition between the US and China. Just a week prior, Vice President Mike Pence addressed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Singapore, warning that there was no place for “empire and aggression” in the Indo-Pacific region: A warning clearly intended for Chinese consumption. 

In the midst of a trade war in which both sides inflict serious wounds on the other’s economy, the two powers are increasingly at odds in the South China Sea. In late September, American and Chinese warships nearly collided, coming within 45 yards of each other. As China seeks to assert itself on its neighbors in the South China Sea, the US has conducted a series of “freedom of navigation” exercises in contested waters, angering Beijing. As the US military re-orientates its capability from counter-terrorism to great power competition and Chinese military spending continues to rise, understanding how the two powers are arming themselves is important. 

Since President Richard Nixon’s rapprochement in the 1970s, US policy toward China has been based on the understanding that Beijing would come to accept American leadership. This was the reasoning behind its accession to the World Trade Organization, for example. The logic being that having China better integrated with international institutions would bring it further into the American fold. However, Beijing is actually using its new-found wealth and influence to transform international rules, norms and institutions in a manner that is increasingly at odds with US interests. 

Unchecked, heavy-handed Chinese diplomacy could lead Asia toward a future that is less democratic and markedly less open to US trade and indeed its key regional military bases. Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong was expressive during the ASEAN summit in stating that Southeast Asian countries did not want to take sides when pulled in different directions by major powers, but that one day they may have to. 

Decision-makers in Washington are clear on the fact that they must improve their strategy, resources and international relationships in order to contain Chinese power. If the US is to sustain its vital interests in Asia and preserve its influence in the South China Sea, it must abandon its belief that China will voluntarily morph into a liberal economy that will respect and advocate the rules of the post-1945 international system. Chinese power continues to grow and the People’s Republic will, as many before it, seek its place in the sun. 

There is no doubt that the Trump administration is gearing the US military to better cope with peer adversaries such as China. In October, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan outlined the new national defense strategy as “the beginning of the retooling of the Department of Defense for great power competition.” Officials are clear in their intention to ready the US for a potential conflict with China by developing radar-evading bombers and fighters to get past China’s advanced anti-aircraft systems. The administration is aware that its ageing A-10s and B-52s, which have been over-serviced in the Middle East over the past three decades, will not survive a potential conflict in Asia. 

Worrying as such a build-up seems, intractable problems in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait underscore that competition for dominance in the Pacific Ocean remains the volatile issue between the two nations. China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which some $3 trillion of shipborne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. The potential for exacerbation of small-scale conflicts between these nations, some of which are long-term US allies, is considerable. 

Chinese power continues to grow and the People’s Republic will, as many before it, seek its place in the sun.

Zaid M. Belbagi

As one of China’s leading tech executives, Meng Wanzhou, languishes in detention in Canada awaiting extradition to the US, the extent of Sino-American competition is only too clear. China’s leading technology firm Huawei is not viewed by the US as the company that made the smartphone accessible to millions of Chinese; rather it is an example of how rapid and fearsome China’s rise has been. 

Unchecked, Beijing has poured funds into technological advances as part of what the government has labelled “civil-military fusion.” Just as Huawei was on the cusp of dominated 5G networks, the US has sought to stunt the company’s advance through legal measures, which indicate its concerns about technological competition. Amidst the specter of state monopolies being dismantled to allow private companies to design and build everything from telecommunications systems to rockets, Chinese decision-makers are keen to close the technology gap with the US military. 

With President Donald Trump calling for a foreign policy that puts “America first” and his Chinese counterpart evoking the Maoist call of “self-reliance,” there is little doubt that US and Chinese disagreements over trade mask a more worrying military buildup that risks regional and international security. 

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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