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theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer
Thursday, April 6, 2017
A RESOLUTE Message for China
From Taiwan to North Korea, Trump can make clear to Xi that America is no longer in retreat.
This week’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping is the most important meeting President Trump will have during his first 100 days in office. The 21st century could well be defined by the Washington-Beijing relationship. Things are not going well so far for the home team. China is on the march globally, and Mr. Trump inherited “no drama Obama’s” U.S., which has been watching it happen.
Remembering Mr. Trump’s campaign promises, the White House may be tempted to focus the summit on China’s many violations of its multilateral trade commitments, including pirating intellectual property; tilting domestic markets in favor of Chinese companies, especially state-controlled ones; and discriminating against foreign litigants in judicial proceedings. China’s mercantilist policies have harmed America and the liberal international trading order generally. All merit extended discussion.
But it’s even more important that Mr. Trump enter the meeting with a coherent strategic plan to address geopolitical and economic disputes. He should feel no pressure to bridge, let alone resolve, any of them now. He should instead focus on conveying clearly his administration’s worldview, which is very different from his predecessor’s.
Making America’s foreign policy great again should mean that apologies, acquiescence, disinterest and passivity are terms that no longer describe or apply to Washington’s leaders. No grandiose final communiqué is needed; a simple statement that the two leaders had a full and frank exchange of views will suffice.
Topping the agenda should be North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, the most imminent danger to the U.S. and its allies. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have made clear how seriously they view the prospect of Pyongyang fitting an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead and threatening targets in the U.S. The president must follow up vigorously, or the Chinese may underestimate how strongly the U.S. feels about the North Korean menace.
The only real way to end the North Korean threat is to reunify the peninsula by merging North Korea into the South. China will find that difficult to swallow. But if the Trump administration can demonstrate the many benefits to China flowing from the regional stability and global security that reunification would bring, Beijing should come around.
North Korea has achieved its current nuclear capabilities despite 25 years of American attempts to halt its progress. U.S. options for stopping Kim Jong Un from taking the final step are now severely limited. Moreover, the U.S. and China must bear in mind that whatever North Korea can do, Iran can do immediately thereafter—for the right price. As Pyongyang inches ever closer to producing deliverable nuclear weapons, the prospect of a pre-emptive U.S. strike against its nuclear infrastructure and launch sites cannot be ruled out.
Beijing has itself threatened to turn the international waters of the South China Sea into a Chinese lake by building bases on disputed rocks and reefs. In the East China Sea, Beijing seeks decisive ways to break through “the first island chain” and into the Pacific. Taiwan is a target; Mr. Xi will repeat the phrase “One China” monotonously in hopes of hypnotizing the Trump team into believing it means what Beijing believes it means, rather than our longstanding interpretation.
The Obama administration’s policy was to call for China, Vietnam, the Philippines and others to resolve their territorial disputes through negotiation. This might have worked had U.S. military forces been sufficiently deployed to support the other claimants and manifest America’s will not to accept Chinese faits accomplis. Instead, Mr. Obama presided over the continuing world-wide decline of our naval capabilities. While Mr. Trump is committed to reversing that decline, it won’t happen overnight. Accordingly, as when Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter, Mr. Trump must display political resolve, buying time until the necessary naval assets are once again at sea. Otherwise, China gets what it wants with cold blue steel, not diplomatic niceties.
China’s threatening military buildup has implications well beyond its bordering seas. Its cyberwarfare program is large and growing. Its anti-ship missiles and other offensive naval weaponry are expressly intended to diminish the U.S.’s ability to project power into the Western Pacific. China’s own naval buildup—its first in 600 years—endangers all its East and Southeast Asian neighbors; its nuclear and ballistic-missile efforts threaten India in unprecedented ways and have major implications for America’s ongoing nuclear-posture review; and its anti-satellite program is aimed squarely at U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities in space.
For eight years, China’s military budget has climbed while America’s has fallen. Communist Party leaders drew the inescapable conclusion that they had a free hand to translate China’s economic successes into military hardware and then to use, or threaten to use, those capabilities to achieve their international objectives. Who would stand in their way? China’s neighbors, from Japan around to India, are incapable of resisting its power without American help. But while Washington has no appetite for conflict, neither should it simply accept Beijing’s adventurism.
President Xi must leave Mar-a-Lago with the firm conclusion that he needs to re-calibrate China’s geopolitical strategy. That alone would be a significant win for the home team. Spring training is finished. For Messrs. Xi and Trump, the real season starts Thursday.