US China critics – in and out of the administration – are celebrating their recent victory – the Trump administration’s cancellation of the participation of US warships and senior military officials in a multinational Naval Review to be hosted by China. While only symbolic, this is a clear victory for US 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 US-China military relations for the remainder of the Trump administration. Moreover, it may presage more dangerous US-China military interactions.
China had officially invited the U.S. to participate in ceremonies marking the anniversary of the founding of the PLA Navy. About 60 countries will participate and about 12 will send naval vessels ,including US allies like France, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/04/05/asia-pacific/snub-u-s-wont-sent-warships-top-officials-chinese-navys-70th-anniversary-celebrations/#.XKgOi1VKj3g
But the US State Department argued against any such American participation claiming that doing so would bolster Beijing’s international standing. https://freebeacon.com/national-security/u-s-to-snub-pla-navy-anniversary/ Although the decision supposedly came from the State Department, one can assume US National Security Advisor John Bolton supported it. He has 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 US snub marks a victory for those who have argued that such “exchanges” have not improved Chinese military behavior, especially in the South China Sea, and that China is a “threat” to the U.S. and the world. Some see war as inevitable and even welcome it. https://thehill.com/opinion/international/437075-trump-owes-his-friend-xi-a-tough-love-message
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 [US] policies toward China”. “In the past, it was the U.S. that tried to establish steady military-to-military relations between the two countries.” This “represented U.S. efforts to engage China and broaden mutual trust. 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.” https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/04/05/asia-pacific/snub-u-s-wont-sent-warships-top-officials-chinese-navys-70th-anniversary-celebrations/#.XKgZzVVKj3h
Noted US hardliner Bill Gertz at the Washington Free Beacon was clearly elated by the decision. So was Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R –Oklahoma) who said “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 Fannell who said the presence of US Navy warships would “legitimize the PLA navy’s bad behavior at sea.” The jubilation was joined by China ‘expert’ 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.”
When this snub is combined with the expected sale of F16’s 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 US foreign policy towards 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”.
This campaign has now moved the needle of US-China relations into the danger zone.
US-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. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has observed “_ _ the public space for open considered debate and discussion on the China question is shrinking as name- calling grows.” “We need to be wary of an atmosphere as anyone seeking to explain the complexity __” of US-China relations is simply accused of “Un American activities__”. “There are already tremors of this emerging around the edges of the foreign and strategic policy community including think tanks and the academy.” https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-10-22/how-avoid-avoidable-war
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 “Right now there is a herding instinct in the United States 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.” Shirk believes “that by overreaction to the perceived China threat, America may be harming itself, especially harming the openness and vibrancy of our own economy and our own society, which are the fundamental source of America’s strength as a nation and its competitiveness.” https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3003973/overreaction-china-threat-could-turn-mccarthyite-red-scare
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” https://chinarecentdevelopments.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/military-part-3/ Some specifically suggest attacks on U.S. Navy ships challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea. https://americanmilitarynews.com/2018/12/chinese-senior-military-official-calls-for-attacks-on-us-ships-in-south-china-sea/; https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/01/04/well-see-how-frightened-america-is-chinese-admiral-says-sinking-us-carriers-k 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 U.S. have moved Washington’s position from engagement to hardline competition.
The US 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 U.S. 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.
A version of this piece first appeared in The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/americas-china-bashers-are-gaining-steam/