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China-US relations

America’s armchair generals are risking military confrontation with China

The US president and his hawkish officials have repeatedly been ignoring their country’s nearly four-decade-old agreement when normalising relations with China to respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2018, 8:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 2:31pm

America’s trade war with China was bound to spill into military relations. US President Donald Trump has been stepping up the momentum and scale of provocation towards Beijing. Taiwan and the South China Sea have been central to the strategy, leading to Chinese retaliation. The US brinkmanship is irresponsible, putting at risk channels of communication and cooperation that took years of bargaining to put in place and raising the spectre of armed confrontation.

In a matter of days last week, the Trump administration further trampled on the one-China principle and thumbed its nose at the rules of international relations. The US State Department approved the sale to Taiwan of up to US$330 million in spare parts for F-16 fighter jets and other aircraft, four days after sanctions were imposed on the People’s Liberation Army’s equipment development department and its director for buying military aircraft and surface-to-air missiles from Russia. Washington’s disputes with Moscow are of no concern to Beijing, yet the Chinese military has been punished for carrying out trade deals. Similarly, the American president and his hawkish officials have repeatedly been ignoring their country’s nearly four-decade-old agreement when normalising relations with China to respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

China’s reaction was swift; the Ministry of Defence recalled navy chief Shen Jinlong from a visit to the United States, postponed talks between Chinese and American military officials set for Beijing and rejected a port stop in Hong Kong by a US warship. That there may be more tit-for-tat action seems certain. Hardliners in Trump’s administration have made no secret that they see China as an adversary. The latest US national security strategy report identified China, along with Russia, as a strategic competitor that must be confronted. Repeatedly sailing warships close to Chinese man-made islands in the South China Sea and, as happened this week, flying B52 bombers over the contested waters and the East China Sea, are bound to raise Beijing’s ire. But no matter how common such operations are, they can only be viewed as unnecessary provocations coming as they do amid rising tensions. Coupled with other US actions and China’s responses, military exchanges and communications essential to prevent accidents between the sides at sea and in the air are inadvertently being put at risk.

Both sides have worked hard to put in place military communications channels and cultivate exchanges, knowing that a mishap could easily escalate into clashes. Nothing good can come of a military conflict for either country or the world. Trump has to reign in his damaging ways and those of his armchair generals to avoid a strategic miscalculation.