Over the course of this year, as Donald Trump has unsettled himself into the U.S. Presidency, one relatively clear policy area that has emerged is the slow ratchet of pressure on China. Incendiary rhetoric from the campaign abated for a time–after a congenial meeting at Mar-a-lago in March–but clearly, Trump had intended China to take away inferences from that meeting that China duly, and predictably, ignored. It may be that the Trump team fully expected this outcome, and that the current round of Twitter bridling was also long planned. Either way it matters little. The several areas of dispute where Chinese and U.S. interests overlap are all now in the spotlight.
Consequently, the U.S. has recently announced–and conducted–more regular FONOPS missions in the South China Sea, a significant arms deal with Taiwan, and the newly elected dovish President of South Korea has now authorized a more extended THAAD deployment after briefly flirting with de-escalation. Furthermore, although the U.S. secured some advances on trade with China which have not yet been reversed, they have made little secret of their disappointment now that further progress has stalled. All the talk in Washington at the moment is of further action against China on the question of technology transfers and IP protection.
Diplomatic Shape Shifting
Attempting to get all this in perspective has led some to conclude that the U.S. is struggling to retain influence in the region, as China’s Belt and Road Initiative dominates the attentions of investors, particularly in the wake of Trump’s abandonment of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This interpretation is reinforced by the relative lack of success the U.S. has so far had in pushing back against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and its failure to stop North Korea’s missile program.
China’s reactions to U.S. pressure, however, characterized by deflection over North Korea, naval cooperation with Russia, and open displays of military readiness, are not providing any comfort for those regional states who might be persuaded to think again about the strength of their relationship with the U.S. Indeed, countries that are not historically close to the U.S. have recently been the focus of China’s more assertive posture.
In the South China Sea, a Vietnamese decision to commence appraisal drilling for gas in contested waters was reversed after overt threats of Chinese military intervention. Now a remote Himalayan valley is hosting a sharp stand-off that has newspapers in India considering the prospect of war. And to the North, Mongolia has seen the election of a new President who makes no secret of his hostility to China. What happened to China’s peaceful rise to regional hegemon? What happened to the cooperative spirit of the BRICS? What does it all mean for the Belt and Road Initiative?
There are many detailed conclusions that might be drawn about each question, but right now South Korea’s response to North Korea’s missile development is a work in progress, Japan is on the move strategically, and India is holding firm over Doklam, so until things settle down much will remain unclear. What is clear, however, is that there is an ongoing reassessment taking place across the region, with clear strategic realignments taking place, but it is not all going China’s way.
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