allies, cabinet, China, confirmation hearings, East Asia, island building, national security, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, South China Sea, tech transfer, Trade, Trump
Since Donald Trump’s cabinet choices appeared at their Senate confirmation hearings last week, critics have rightly observed that the president-elect and his picks to run his foreign and national security policies seem to disagree sharply on some major issues.
Less noticed is how the Trump nominees’ statements have revealed worse incoherence in the ranks of most critics – who sit overwhelmingly in the nation’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment. An unusually worrisome example has been the near-firestorm over Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson’s statement that “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
Tillerson’s remarks referred to an especially brazen aspect of Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea – centered on territorial claims that no one else in the region accepts. In an apparent effort to create irreversible realities “on the ground,” China has been capitalizing on the local topography literally to turn existing rocks and similar features into mini islands. Beijing has gone on to place various kinds of facilities – including some with military capabilities – on them, and to declare the immediately surrounding waters to be Chinese territory.
As widely noted, there’s at best considerable tension between Tillerson’s warning and several suggestions made by the president-elect during the campaign that he’s worried that America’s security relationships in the East Asia/Pacific region have become too dangerous militarily (since its adversaries are developing increasingly potent nuclear forces) and too one-sided economically (since the United States runs huge trade deficits with most regional countries).
Also completely weird, however, have been the alarm bells set off in establishment ranks to the effect that Tillerson had suddenly moved America dramatically closer to war with China over the South China Sea. For many of these voices have thoroughly upbraided Mr. Trump for failing to appreciate the crucial importance of U.S. alliances for safeguarding American and global security.
Establishment voice FOREIGN POLICY magazine ran a piece ominously asking, “Is Tillerson Ready to Go to War Over the South China Sea?” Only slightly less melodramatic was this Wall Street Journal sub-headline: “If carried out, Tillerson’s proposal to bar Beijing from some South China Sea islands would likely trigger military battle, experts say.”
A Christian Science Monitor headline sounded a similar alarm, and its article reported that “[T]he policy would dramatically reshape US thinking on Chinese expansionism, drawing a hard new territorial line in China’s backyard and, experts say, invite a military confrontation with Beijing.”
And even though they weren’t predicting imminent conflict, the experts interviewed by The Los Angeles Times still apparently fretted that Tillerson, “without diplomatic experience, had engaged in a flight of hyperbole in keeping with the tough rhetoric about China favored by Trump.”
These would all be defensible views except for one consideration: The American security strategy in the East Asia/Pacific region that all these experts have endorsed as a group for decades depends first and foremost on a credible threat to use military force to deter the kind of aggression in which China is engaged.
It is completely legitimate to question whether or not China’s island-building is the best casus belli, or circumstance for drawing a “red line.” But it is the height of hypocrisy to condemn – or even tut-tut over – a statement emphasizing that the United States has long considered maintaining freedom of the seas in East Asia to be a vital security interest (including by the Obama administration), and that China is on a course that will require U.S. military responses unless Beijing stops or changes direction sharply.
Or are all these American Asia experts confident that China will even slow its land and sea grab at some point down the road without firmer U.S. counter-moves than have been seen to date? If so, it’s time that they explained their reasons why – and how these rationales relate to their long-time insistence that major American military deployments in this region are essential to maintain peace and stability.
So the incoming administration looks to be a house divided on dealing with China’s strategic ambitions in Asia. That’s disturbing, but at least from the little known so far, the leading factions will be internally consistent (though the hawks still need to show that they understand the need to stop adding to China’s wealth and power through dangerously shortsighted trade and tech transfer policies, and Mr. Trump needs to understand more completely that even greater defense burden-sharing by the Asians could still leave America with unacceptable nuclear risks).
But the outside critics have just about disqualified themselves from any role in this debate – unless they can offer something more than hopelessly scattershot whining.