In his latest move upping the ante against China, US President Donald Trump ordered the shutdown of its consulate in Houston, Texas. He warned that his government might close other Chinese missions if it retaliates with tit-for-tat closures of US diplomatic posts in China.
Well, China did in fact order the closure of a US consulate last week, in Chengdu, indicating that it will fight fire with fire against what it called US bullying and lies. So what will Trump do next, break diplomatic relations with China altogether, or declare war on the Asian giant?
Whatever game the US is playing, however, it does not seem to want a war against China. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he would like to visit China near the end of the year to improve relations. However, he also accused Beijing of “aggression” in the deployment of additional military assets to the Asia-Pacific region.
Esper’s contradictions were probably for the benefit of the domestic audience, a ploy to get Trump re-elected to a second term. Given the overwhelming anti-China sentiment among American voters, the strategy might work. What is more, Esper’s and his fellow cabinet ministers’ political fortunes are tied to Trump’s.
However, no one, including Trump himself, would be reckless enough to declare war on the the rising Asian superpower, for a number of reasons.
First, China is not like Iraq or any of the countries that the US bombed, but a formidable foe with the economic and military prowess to inflict unthinkable damage in terms of human lives and properties to the US and its allies.
Esper should realize that if China was not afraid to fight the US and allies during the Korean War (1950-53), it is not afraid to confront the US head-on today. In those days, Chinese soldiers were so poorly equipped that they had to take the weapons dead enemy soldiers in order to carry on the fight.
China clearly demonstrated its readiness to respond in kind to US threats and actions. It closed the US Consulate in Chengdu in retaliation against Trump shutting down the Chinese Consulate in Houston. China imposed tit-for-tat sanctions on US lawmakers over a law condemning alleged human-rights violations in Xinjiang. China has increased the quality and quantity of weapons in the South and East China Seas to counter the US sending larger numbers of warships and fighter jets to the Asia-Pacific region.
Indeed, the RAND Corporation simulated a number of war scenarios between the US and China, concluding that America and its allies would suffer huge losses of human lives and properties or losing the war to the Asian “enemy.” On the economic front, Trump’s trade war against China has been, in part, responsible for the economic slump suffered by Americans – except for a few wealthy people who made money on the stock market.
Second, US allies, and indeed the countries within the Asia-Pacific region, might not support an all-out military conflict with China. The war would be fought on their turf, and as the old saying goes, “When two elephants go on a rampage, the neighborhood will be trampled.”
Furthermore, opposing Beijing would be in effect biting the hand that feeds them, as China is their biggest trade partner, source of tourists and international students. Almost a third of Australian exports are destined for China, and without Chinese students, many Australian universities could be in dire straits. The absence of Chinese tourists could kill many Aussie service-sector businesses.
Japan and South Korea are in a similar situation in that they too are dependent on their giant neighbor for their economic well-being.
In a US-China war, moreover, South Korea and Japan would probably be the first to feel the wrath of Chinese missiles if they decide to join America in the fray. Being relatively small in terms of geography and with a dense population, neither US ally could survive bombs hitting Tokyo or Seoul.
Third, there is no reason for a war other than preventing China from gaining a position in which it can challenge US supremacy. But it is too late, because China is already there, or nearly so.
The fact of the matter is that China has never shown any indication that it is scheming to topple US global supremacy, a fear that exists only in the minds of the American anti-China crowd.
For example, China scholar Michael Pillsbury accused China of using devious “Fu Manchu” measures to supplant US dominance in his book The Hundred-Year Marathon, basing his argument largely on the fact that Chinese people play Go. He was apparently told by a Chinese-American that Go players use deceptions to defeat their opponents.
If that is true, one can make the same allegation for chess players. Besides, the Japanese and Koreans also play Go. So should Pillsbury and his soulmates not worry about Japan and South Kore “scheming” to topple American dominance?
Last but not least, most if not all allegations against China are based on disinformation, cherry-picking information, or “what ifs.” For example, the US accusation of China bullying its smaller neighbors in the South China Sea was an American invention based on a distortion of history.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea were never much of an issue for the US until Democrat presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton announced in 2016 that it was an American international interest, or when her boss Barack Obama established his “pivot to-Asia” policy in 2012. Up until then, the claimants agreed on leaving the issue aside and talked of joint development.
Furthermore, the “nine dash line” on which China based its claims was drafted not by the Communists but by the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government in 1947 and was supported by the US government. Only after the Communists replaced the KMT as the ruling party did the US withdraw its support.
Under terms of the Cairo Declaration, Japan was forced to return all of the territories it had annexed in the South and East China Seas to the rightful owners. The US was a signatory if not the main author of that instrument.
In short, US provocations against China have largely been made to get Trump (and his political allies in the US Congress) re-elected and to deny the Asian country from challenging US supremacy. The Trump administration (and Congress) fully realize that a full-blown war with China would be mutually assured destruction.
It is time the Trump administration (and some members of Congress) fulfilled their responsibility, working with China to improve America’s national interests rather than their own.
Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.