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South China Sea

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Trump and China: The “Madman” Strategy

“When two elephants fight against each other, the grass always suffers,” said Yu-Fang Lin of the National Policy Foundation, a Taiwan-based think tank, in an interview with the Washington Times. He was talking about the famous phone call between Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump on 2 December. If the US and China get into a military confrontation, Lin suggested, it is Taiwan that will be crushed.

The Chinese Communist regime was outraged by that phone call, the first direct conversation between an official of the Taiwan government and an American president or president-elect in almost four decades, but it kept its fury in check.

Beijing made an official complaint to Washington, but China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the call as a “petty trick” by Taiwan. The Chinese leaders, as puzzled as everybody else by the Trump phenomenon, were soft-pedaling the issue and hoping against hope that the president-elect wasn’t looking for a fight.

The alternative was just too frightening to contemplate. Yu-Fang Lin called it the “madman” strategy: Trump making himself “appear to be very dangerous and hostile and very unpredictable to scare the (Chinese) leaders” into concessions on various issues. Within days, however, Trump gave Lin’s theory wings.

In an interview on Fox News last Sunday, the president-elect threatened to destroy the entire foundation on which US-Chinese relations have been based since 1979. “I don’t see why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

The rabidly nationalist Global Times, a tabloid attack dog linked to the Chinese Communist Party, said Trump was “as ignorant as a child.” The official response was more polite, but equally severe.

“The Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and involves China’s core interests,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “If (the ‘One China’ principle) is interfered with or damaged, then the healthy development of China-US relations and bilateral co-operation in important areas is out of the question.”

The key phrase here is “out of the question.” If Trump is going to play the “madman” card, then China will not negotiate anything. And if he urges Taiwan along the road to formal independence, then (as the Global Times put it) China may have to consider arming America’s enemies or taking back Taiwan by force.

The “One China” policy dates back to 1979, when the United States broke its formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and transferred them to the People’s Republic of China. It was an “agreeable fiction” that allowed Washington to have its cake and eat it too.

In terms of both trade and military strategy, it was far more important for Washington to have diplomatic relations with China (current population 1.3 billion) than with Taiwan (22 million). However, it was politically impossible for the US to just abandon the Taiwan regime, which it had backed in the Chinese civil war and continued to support after that regime lost the war and retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949.

And so the “One China” policy. Everybody agreed that China could not be divided, but Taiwan could keep its de facto independence so long as it accepted that China must one day be reunited. The United States would break diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but could go on trading with it and even selling it arms. And everybody lived happily ever after, more or less.

China bent over backwards to get this deal, because at the time it was still a very poor country trying to open up trade ties with the West, and it was also mired in a military confrontation with the old Soviet Union. That confrontation is long over and China is no longer poor, but it has meticulously observed the terms of the deal for 37 years. Now Trump is threatening to cancel the deal if he cannot get better terms from Beijing.

What Trump wants, he says, is for China to stop devaluing its currency, cut tariffs, stop building a “massive fortress” in the South China Sea, and help to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. He has also promised to “bring American jobs back from China,” perhaps by imposing a huge tariff (45 percent) on Chinese exports to the United States.

This is totally unrealistic. China stopped deliberately devaluing its currency years ago, and is now actually selling dollars in an attempt to stop its decline. And those “American jobs” are never coming back. Instead they are disappearing in China, where automation is predicted to eliminate 77 percent of jobs in the next 20 years. Does he actually understand this? Who knows?

Threatening to cancel a deal if he can’t get better terms may have worked for Trump in business, but it’s not just money at stake here. It’s Chinese territory, the very notion of national unity, “core interests”, as Beijing puts it. The Chinese regime won’t yield on this because it can’t, and if Trump pursues his “madman” strategy we are all in for a rough time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (“What…knows”)

South China Sea Showdown?

Next Wednesday (12 July) the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea will issue its ruling on China’s claim to practically all of the South China Sea. And already the main military contenders are moving more forces into the region.

China’s Maritime Safety Administration announced that Chinese naval and air forces will carry out seven days of exercises in an area extending from Hainan to the Paracel Islands off the Vietnamese coast. The exercises will end on 11 July, just one day before the tribunal’s ruling is released, so they will still be around if things get more exciting after that.

They might well get more exciting, because the US Navy’s Task Force 70, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, has now moved into the South China Sea. Its task, according to its commander, Rear-Admiral John D. Alexander, is “to maintain the seas open for all to use.”

The Chinese Defence Ministry’s spokesman, Col. Wu Qian, warned last Thursday that this is “an act of militarisation in the South China Sea and it endangers regional peace and stability. But I’d like to say that the US side is making the wrong calculation. The Chinese armed forces never give in to outside forces.” And on Friday President Xi Jinping declared that China will never compromise on sovereignty and is “not afraid of trouble.”

So the stage may be set for a serious US-Chinese military confrontation if the Hague tribunal rules against China’s claim next week as expected. The US military fear that China may respond by declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone over the whole of the South China Sea, like the ADIZ it declared in the East China Sea in 2013 in its quarrel with Japan over disputed islands there.

Both the US and Japan refused to recognise that ADIZ and sent their own military aircraft to fly through it. The US Navy would unquestionably respond in the same way to a Chinese-declared ADIZ in the South China Sea – and last February China installed two batteries of anti-aircraft missiles with a range of 200 km. on Woody Island in the Paracels.

In a worst-case analysis, therefore, we could be only a week away from a major military clash between the United States and China in the South China Sea. But it really shouldn’t go that far, because the Hague tribunal’s ruling will have no practical effect.

China’s “nine-dash line” claim to almost 90 percent of the South China Sea looks preposterous on a map – it extends more than a thousand km. from the southern-most point of China while coming within less than a hundred km. of the Filipino, Malaysian and Vietnamese coasts – but it is taken very seriously in China.

The historical justifications for Beijing’s claim are flimsy, but beginning with the seizure by force of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974, China has extended its control to most of tiny islands and reefs in the entire area.

In the past three years it has expanded seven of these tiny footholds with concrete and landfill, building airstrips, port facilities and other potential military assets on them. In February, for the first time, it put actual weapons on them. Whether or not this was directly in response to the case brought against it in The Hague by the Philippines in 2013, it certainly had the effect of making a military confrontation more likely.

But China stated in advance that it would not recognise any ruling on the validity of its claim by the UN-backed Hague tribunal, which has no way to enforce its decision. So it should not feel obliged to resort to military force to defend its claim, any more than the US should feel any need to use force to challenge it. In theory.

Behind the sometimes belligerent thetoric from Beijing, there has been a long-standing policy that China should avoid military confrontations with other great powers until it has grown strong enough economically to stand a good chance of winning. It’s not there yet, so it should still be gun-shy. But there may now be another consideration at work.

The social contract that keeps the Chinese Communist Party in power is simple: so long as the Party delivers steadily rising living standards, the population will accept its dictatorial rule. For almost thirty years it has kept its side of the bargain, with economic growth rates of between 8 and 10 percent per year.

But even the Party admits that the growth rate is now down to 6 percent, and hardly anybody else believes it is even four percent. Some observers think the economy may not be growing at all this year. If that is the case, then the regime is drifting into dangerous waters, and it will need a foreign distraction to divert public attention from its failure.

An exciting but carefully contained confrontation over the South China Sea with the United States and its Southeast Asian allies could be the solution, igniting nationalist passions in China and generating support for the regime, but the tricky bit is keeping it “carefully contained”. Once you start down that road, you cannot be sure where it will take you.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“So…Paracels”)

Philippines Election

Rodrigo Duterte, who has just been elected president of the Philippines, comes across as Donald Trump on stilts. He talks dirtier (last week he called the outgoing president a “son of a whore”), and he can barely open his mouth without threatening to kill somebody (he recently promised to fill Manila Bay with the bodies of 100,000 criminals if he won). But the resemblance is only superficial.

For one thing, Duterte is not a fake tough guy. In Davao City, where he has been mayor for the past 22 years, a local priest estimates that death squads linked to him have killed over 1,400 people, mostly petty criminals and street kids. Sometimes “Duterte Harry” denies the death squads exist, sometimes he condones them, occasionally he hints that he does some of the killing himself.

Maybe so, maybe not, but what matters to the people who voted for him is that Davao City, once the most violent city in the Philippines and possibly in all of Asia, is now so safe that naked virgins carrying bags of gold regularly pass through its streets at midnight unmolested. The man is a miracle-worker, or so it seems, and now he is going to work miracles for the whole country.

The miracle he is now expected to produce, however, is not just law and order. It is a more equal sharing of the prosperity that some in the Philippines are now beginning to enjoy, and that is a considerably taller order.

For many years the Philippines lagged behind the other countries of South-East Asia – Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia – as they turned into “tiger” economies and local incomes soared. The wealth was not very evenly shared in any of them, but at least as their economies grew even their poorest citizens enjoyed some “trickle-down” effect. Whereas this process had scarcely begun in the Philippines.

For the past decade the economy of the Philippines has finally been growing fast: an average of 6 percent annually. Foreign investment has quadrupled, the budget deficit is down, more money is being spent on infrastructure – but in ten years there has been no trickle-down beyond the middle class. The poor are just as numerous and just as poor as always. So they voted for Duterte.

The establishment tried it best to stop this sinister populist. Outgoing president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino (who is constitutionally forbidden to seek a second term), tried to get the other presidential candidates to unite behind one candidate against Duterte. He warned that Duterte would turn into a dictator. At a closing rally on Saturday, he told voters: “I need your help to stop the return of terror in our land. I cannot do it alone.”

They didn’t listen. Duterte not only won; he got almost twice as many votes as the candidate who came second, and he is going to be the president of the Philippines for the next six years. So what will he actually do with his mandate? Nobody knows, because he hasn’t been very forthcoming about his intentions.

When the presidential hopefuls were asked what they would do about their country’s bitter dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by both of them, for example, the other candidates offered detailed strategies for asserting the Filipino claim. Duterte said he would go out on a jet-ski and plant the Filipino flag on one of them.

So, then: impulsive, headline-grabbing, not best known for his joined-up thinking…Starting to sound like Trump again, isn’t he? But there are things about Duterte that suggest a more complex person behind the facade.

He has been a prominent supporter of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups in Davao, which is definitely not a vote-winning position in the deeply Catholic Philippines. He has been trying to restart the stalled peace process with the Muslim minority in his home island of Mindanao, and insists that it must address the injustices that have been committed against Muslims.

Not really your run-of-the-mill populist after all, then, but it still feels like the Filipinos have made a serious mistake in voting for Duterte. There’s just too much macho bluster, like this gem from his final campaign rally in Manila on Saturday: “Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’ll kill you.”

He’s also prone to say that if the country’s democratic institutions get in the way of his anti-crime crusade than he’ll abolish the Congress and rule as a “revolutionary government.” His entertainment value is undeniable, but Filipinos may come to regret giving him the keys to the presidential palace.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“For many…Philippines”)

War in the South China Sea?

“If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a US-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea,” said an editorial in the Global Times last week. The Global Times is an English-language daily paper specialising in international affairs that is published by the People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s official newspaper. So we should presumably take what it says seriously.

But really, a US-Chinese war in the South China Sea? Over a bunch of reefs that barely clear the water at high tide, and some fishing rights and mineral rights that might belong to China if it can bully, persuade, or bribe the other claimants into renouncing their claims? The GDP of the United States is $16.8 trillion each year, and China’s GDP is $9.2 trillion. All the resources of the South China Sea would not amount to $1 trillion over fifty years.

Great powers end up fighting great wars. Counting a pre-war arms race, the losses during the war (even assuming it doesn’t go nuclear), and a resumed arms race after the war, the long-term cost of a US-Chinese war over the South China Sea could easily be $5 trillion. Are you sure this is a good idea?

Yet stupid things do happen. Consider the Falklands War. In 1982, Britain and Argentina fought a quite serious little war (more than nine hundred people were killed, ships were sunk, etc.) over a couple of islands in the South Atlantic that had no strategic and little economic value.

Maybe that’s not relevant. After all, Argentina had never been a great power, and by 1982 Britain was no longer really one either. The war in the Falklands was, said Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “a fight between two bald men over a comb.” Yet it is a bit worrisome, isn’t it? It didn’t make strategic or economic sense, but they did it anyway.

Let’s look at the question from another angle. Who is the messenger that bears such alarming news about a US-Chinese war? The Global Times, although published by the Chinese Communist government, is a tabloid newspaper in the style of the New York Post or the Daily Mail in Britain: down-market, sensationalist, and not necessarily accurate.

But it has never published anything that the Chinese authorities did not want published. So the question becomes: WHY did the Chinese authorities want this story published? Presumably to frighten the United States enough to make it stop challenging the Chinese claims in the South China Sea. This is turning into a game of chicken, and China has just thrown out the brakes.

Would Beijing really go to war if the United States doesn’t stop overflying the reefs in question and carrying out other activities that treat the Chinese claim as unproven? Probably even the bosses in Beijing don’t know the answer to that. But they really do intend to control the South China Sea, and the United States and its local friends and allies (the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan) really will not accept that.

The Chinese claim truly is astonishingly brazen. The “nine-dash line”, an official map published by the Beijing government in 1949, claims practically ALL the uninhabited reefs and tiny islands in the shallow sea as Chinese territory, even ones that are 700 km from the Chinese coast and 150 km from the Philippines or Vietnam.

Since the islands might all generate Exclusive Economic Zones of 300 km, China may be planning to claim rights over the entire sea up to an average of about 100 km off the coasts of the other countries that surround the sea. It hasn’t actually stated the details of that claim yet, but it is investing a lot in laying the foundations for such a claim.

It’s as if the the United States built some reefs in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, claimed them as sovereign territory, and then said that the whole sea belonged to the US except for narrow coastal strips for Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, etc.

China is actually building islands as part of this strategy: taking low-lying reefs and building them up with enormous quantities of sand, rock and cement to turn them into (marginally) habitable places. Then it acts astonished and offended when other countries challenge this behaviour, or even send reconnaissance flights to see what the Chinese are up to.

The veiled threats and the bluster that accompany this are intended to warn all the other claimants off. It’s been going on for years, but it’s getting much more intense as the Chinese project for building military bases all over the South China Sea (it denies that that’s what they are, of course) nears completion. So now the rhetoric steps up to actual warning of a Chinese-US war.

The Global Times is right, whether its writers know it or not. If China keeps acting as if its claims were universally accepted and unilaterally expanding the reefs to create large bases with airstrips and ports, and the US and local powers go on challenging China’s claims, then there really could be a war. Later, not now, and not necessarily ever, but it could happen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13.