Tensions continue to ramp up in the South China Sea with the American and Chinese militaries engaging in shadow boxing to assert their respective dominance. On Wednesday, China launched a couple of missiles, including one dubbed as an aircraft-carrier killer, into the South China Sea in apparent response to US aerial activities in the region. The missile launches come a day after an American U-2 spy plane entered a Chinese-declared no-fly zone during a live-fire naval drill by the Chinese military in the Bohai Sea off China’s northern coast. In fact, even on Wednesday the US had sent one of its three RC-135S Cobra Ball ballistic missile-detection planes from Kadena Air Base in Japan’s Okinawa into the Chinese exercise area ahead of the Chinese missile launches.
All of this shows that a good amount of muscle-flexing is underway in the Indo-Pacific region. But an actual conflict between China and the US would be catastrophic given the sheer strength of the two militaries. In fact, in light of the firepower involved – since land-based troop engagement is a remote possibility here, most of the platforms are heavy-duty sea and air systems – a mistake by either Washington or Beijing would be costly for the whole world.
But short of such escalation the two sides are expected to continue engaging in area domination operations. On its part, China will keep pushing its expansive maritime claims over the South and East China Seas, and back this up with increasing demonstrations of its improving naval, air and missile prowess. The US, meanwhile, will continue conducting its freedom of navigation operations in the Chinese claimed – but not legally recognised so – waters and carry out military exercises with its regional allies like it did in July. China’s strategy is plain. It wants to demonstrate that it has the capabilities today to dominate the South and East China Seas and even target US bases in the region — including those in Japan — and as far away as Diego Garcia and Guam. In other words, it wants to show that it can neutralise any American military advantage in the region.
For Beijing, this is important to send a signal to other regional countries – from India to the Asean nations which have competing claims in the South China Sea to Taiwan, Japan and Australia – that they can’t rely on American military presence in the region as a hedging or pressure tool against China. Meaning, attempts to militarise the Quad grouping or setting up a larger Indo-Pacific military grouping will be meaningless as China has adequate area dominance and area denying capabilities today. Additionally, it is well known by now that US President Donald Trump isn’t much of a multilateralism man and has been riding his military allies hard over cost-sharing for joint defence. Trump wants allies like Japan and South Korea to pay more to support the presence of US forces in these countries. That is just music to China’s ears. If Trump is able to win re-election this November, fissures in US military alliances could widen.
Then there is the issue of American economic commitment to East Asia. Under Trump’s America First Policy and transactional approach to trade, Washington has been piling pressure even on allies to reduce the trade surpluses in their favour. It has been demanding reciprocity and slapping heavy tariffs on imports until this is achieved. But how can the US put together an effective alliance to counter China if it is undercutting trade with Indo-Pacific countries and denying them an avenue to become rich? Only strong regional economies – from India to Japan – can act as counterweight to China. But that’s not going to happen if Trump is stuck on trade reciprocity. Just to illustrate, Vietnam is seen as a key country in a regional formation to balance China. But Vietnam has a trade surplus with the US. So how does it help the US if it starts to pile pressure on Vietnam to reduce the trade deficit? Meanwhile, China is ramping up trade ties with Asean nations. In fact, Asean has become China’s No.1 trading partner in the first half of this year with Beijing’s imports from the Southeast Asian trading bloc increasing by 8.5%.
Therefore, as long as East Asian economies have strong economic relations with China, and the US does nothing to replace these ties, China is sitting pretty. And if Beijing can demonstrate that it can deny Washington militarily in the region, then nations on China’s periphery will have little option other than acquiescing to Beijing’s power play. This is precisely why I believe that Trump is getting it wrong. He can’t win the strategic war with China just through conducting freedom of navigation operations. He needs to take regional allies along, both militarily and economically – pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement was a huge mistake. But Trump’s domestic politics doesn’t allow this. This is why I believe that Trump’s opponent in the November election Joe Biden and the Democratic Party with their multilateral approach are actually better equipped to counter an aggressive China.