China-US relations

Whether it’s trade, Taiwan or the South China Sea, the US doesn’t hold a winning hand against China

Chen Xi and Lu Canfeng say the US has three cards – trade, Taiwan and naval operations – it can play in a contest against China, but how effective they are is questionable 

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 3:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 8:34pm

So far, the United States under Donald Trump has three cards – economic, political and military – on the table to bargain with China. They involve trade, Taiwan and naval freedom of navigation operations. The question is: can these cards work?

China has made it crystal clear that it doesn’t want a trade war, but it is also not afraid of being forced into one. As if to reinforce its pledge, the Chinese government recently announced tariffs on 128 products across seven categories to retaliate against the US penalties on imports of Chinese steel and aluminium.

The US ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, said Beijing should not take retaliatory measures aimed at imports of American soybeans. Indeed. 

Soybeans, together with aircraft and aircraft parts, are the core of American exports to China. Imposing tariffs on these items would signal a real trade war. 

Meet the Chinese farmers delighted by the prospect of a US trade war

Chinese exporters in race to maximise sales before US tariff increases

However, looking back at history, both sides have never waged a trade war against each other in spite of the rhetoric. After all, why would the two countries punish each other to the extent that they would irreversibly harm the livelihoods of their own people? 

Voices calling for restraint and cooperation have been on the rise both in Beijing and Washington. According to The Wall Street Journal, China and the US have been quietly negotiating to avoid a trade war.

So, then, could Taiwan become a wild card? From a phone call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen to US arms sales to Taiwan, the Trump administration might see Taiwan as another bargaining chip in US-China dealings. 

But for China, Taiwan is non-negotiable. In fact, China may have its own agenda for taking targeted measures against pro-independence forces in Taiwan. 

The future’s bright, Xi Jinping tells Taiwanese business chiefs, just don’t think of cutting loose

Beijing ready to snuff out any separatist move, and live-fire drill in Taiwan Strait is proof, official says

At the closing ceremony of the first session of the 13th National People’s Congress, President Xi Jinping warned that the Chinese people share a common belief that it will never be allowed and will be impossible for any “any inch of our great country’s territory” to be separated from China.

The stronger China becomes, the less the US can use Taiwan as a wild card. Taiwan’s security lies in trust between the mainland and Taiwan, rather than military exchanges with the US

This was widely taken as a warning to Tsai, who unlike her predecessor, still dodges the “1992 Consensus”. But there doesn’t appear to be another way out.

In fact, the stronger China becomes, the less the US can use Taiwan as a wild card. Taiwan’s security lies in trust between the mainland and Taiwan, rather than military exchanges with the US.

After all, the Taiwan-US military exchanges are only symbolic, due to the overwhelming military strength of the mainland in recent years. More importantly, it is no secret that Taiwan’s economy depends heavily on the mainland.

Trump should note that China-US relations far outweigh the importance of US relations with Taiwan. China plays an indispensable role in addressing major regional and international issues, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the North Korean nuclear crisis

However, both houses of Congress voted for the Taiwan Travel Act and exchange visits between US and Taiwanese officials at all levels. This will only become another irritant that will destabilise China-US relations in the future.

Perhaps the US still has one more card up its sleeve. It is nothing new for the Trump administration to send US naval ships within 12 nautical miles of the China-controlled islands in the South China Sea. There could be two consequences of the US navy continuing such operations. 

US actions risk upsetting the security status quo on Taiwan

Why Asean wants a code of conduct for the skies over the South China Sea

First, the high frequency of American freedom of navigation operations will only make China feel more obliged to speed up building its defence capacity on the islands and reefs. 

As a recent response to a US official’s remark that Beijing had installed military jamming equipment on the South China Sea features known as the Spratly Islands internationally and the Nansha Islands in Chinese, Beijing last week asserted its “natural right” to deploy troops and necessary military equipment on the islands.

Taiwan leader says island secure ahead of China naval drills

It is fair to say that neither China nor the US wants a conflict triggered by an incident at sea, but the chances are high that whenever a US ship conducts freedom of navigation operations in the waters, unexpected incidents could occur, putting the sailors of both countries at risks. 

Freedom of navigation operations increase the potential for accidents between the two militaries. The deadly collision between a Chinese fighter jet and an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft in 2001 still serves as a chilling reminder. 

These three American cards, no matter how wild they appear, are certainly not winning cards.

Chen Xi and Lu Canfeng are military commentators based in Beijing