The Navy's forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan transits the San Bernardino Strait, crossing from the Philippine Sea into the South China Sea. Photo: US Navy / Jason Tarleton

On November 20, 2019, I wrote an article for The Washington Times titled “America is at war with China.” This was before the “the Chinese virus” and unfortunately turned out to be prescient. 

Donald Trump wrote in his book The Art of the Deal: “I’ve read hundreds of books about China over the decades. I know the Chinese. I’ve made a lot of money with the Chinese. I understand the Chinese mind.” 

Later, after becoming president, he used his insight as a businessman to confront China on its trade policies, commercial espionage and intellectual-property theft to create a rare and new bipartisan consensus. China had not become more democratic with economic liberalization, which had been the hope of previous US presidents since 1978 when China announced “Gaige Kaifang” (the Four Modernizations).

Notwithstanding this accomplishment, America is in a de facto war with China with no visible plan to end the Chinese threat to the US and its allies in the South and East China Seas. Sending the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups to the region does not amount to a plan.  

To the Chinese, President Trump is a paper tiger. When Trump calls Chinese President Xi Jinping his “good friend,” which is no doubt what his advisers say is Asian etiquette, it undermines his ability to then take a tough line and is anyway not reciprocated. China’s propaganda arms like People’s Daily regularly attack Trump and do not consider him to be a friend, although the public truthfully respects his wealth and abilities.

The Trump administration seems to be paralyzed into inaction against China by an in-house division between the hawks, such as Peter Navarro and of course Trump himself, and the doves, such as the ex-Goldman Sachs people. 

This is similar to what happened to president Lyndon B Johnson during the Vietnam War.  The split between the doves and the hawks in that administration led LBJ to be a “gradual escalator” so the Vietnamese saw the punches before he threw them. It was worse than either a full commitment or a full withdrawal.

The need for executive-branch action against China is long overdue.

China has expanded militarily throughout the region, reneged on trade agreements, initially covered up the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan – a city where at least four other pandemics originated – and in effect tore up the Basic Law in Hong Kong with its arrests and new security law there.

Trump should take the following foreign-policy steps to counter China and its acts of war against the US:

  • Recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country, the Republic of China, convert the American Institute in Taiwan into a real embassy, and return to its former bases throughout “the terraced bay.”
  • Return to the US Naval Base Subic Bay and Clark Air Base in the Philippines, which provided the backbone of logistical support for US forces during the Cold War.
  • Enter a mutual defense treaty with Vietnam and return to Cam Ranh Air Force Base, which provided the US Air Force and Navy with extensive logistical support during the Vietnam War.
  • Press Japan to revise Article 9 of its constitution to allow it to possess a full-fledged military force, which in reality it already possesses under the deceptive name “Self-Defense Forces,” and make Japan independently nuclear-capable.  
  • Stop ignoring the smaller countries in Asia and support emerging democracies and future allies such as Myanmar. The Trump administration has done even less for them than his predecessor Barack Obama.

The cornerstone of American prestige around the world is its military power, its presence in every country, and the fact that the dollar is the de facto world currency.

The challenge for President Trump – or his successor – is to show the Chinese Politburo, through enhanced power projection, that America will raise the stakes in the Pacific and will end the Chinese threat. 

The Obama/Joe Biden administration’s plan to encourage China’s good behavior in the South and East China Seas was ineffective because it relied on charm, quiet warnings, and no military action. 

The pre-Trump idea that Chinese aggression could be deterred by an arbitral ruling against it by the Permanent Court for International Arbitration in The Hague was never going to work in the first place and was merely pointing to someone else to do something.

Since Trump understands the Chinese way of thinking, he surely knows that China did not respect his predecessor and that the only thing it will respect is power and action, not kowtowing to it.

Christopher Beres is a lawyer who has represented Cambodia in international litigation. He holds a master’s degree in East Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.