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News analysis: World Economic Forum - Davos

America risking a Pacific clash with China

There appears little doubt that Trump's America is steaming towards a confrontation with China, following incidents involving the three Ts - Taiwan, Tillerson and trade.

The questions surrounding US President-elect Donald Trump's relationship with Russia are lurid and compelling. But they are distracting from a more important and more dangerous story: the growing signs that the Trump administration is heading for a clash with China - one that could even lead to military conflict.

The latest indication came last week at the confirmation hearings of Mr Rex Tillerson, who is Mr Trump's nominee to be US secretary of state. Mr Tillerson signalled a significant hardening in the US attitude to the artificial islands that Beijing has been building in the South China Sea. He likened the island-building programme to Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and said that the Trump administration intended to send a clear signal to Beijing that "your access to those islands is not going to be allowed".

That sounded like an American threat to blockade the islands, on which China has been building military installations. China would almost certainly attempt to break such a blockade, by sea or air. The stage would be set for a modern version of the Cuban missile crisis.

The Chinese state-sanctioned media reacted ferociously to Mr Tillerson's statement. The Global Times, a nationalist paper, warned of "a large-scale war", while China Daily spoke of a "devastating confrontation between China and the US".

It is certainly possible that Mr Tillerson went further than he intended in his congressional testimony. His statement seemed to contradict the formal US position that its sole concern is freedom of navigation in the Pacific and that it takes no position on Chinese sovereignty over the islands. But Mr Tillerson has done nothing to withdraw or clarify his statements. And the Tillerson testimony is not the only indication that the Trump administration is bent on confrontation with China. Changes in US policy on Taiwan and trade point in the same direction.

Since 1979, when the US and China normalised relations, the US has respected Beijing's "one China" policy, which insists that Taiwan is a mere rebel province. As a result, no US leader has spoken to a leader of Taiwan for decades. But in December, Mr Trump broke with this precedent by taking a phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen.

A panda ice sculpture holding the Swiss and Chinese flags, as the two countries launched a joint year of tourism on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
A panda ice sculpture holding the Swiss and Chinese flags, as the two countries launched a joint year of tourism on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos. PHOTO: REUTERS

As is usual with Trump surprises, some suggested that the President-elect may simply have blundered. But last week, Mr Trump gave an interview in which he underlined that his administration might indeed jettison the "one China" policy, unless Beijing makes concessions on trade. Since China has repeatedly insisted that it will go to war rather than accept Taiwanese independence, this too is a high-risk policy.

For Mr Trump, the real bottom line is probably trade. During the election campaign, he railed: "We have a US$500 billion (S$710 billion) deficit with China ... We can't continue to allow China to rape our country." Those who hoped that Mr Trump would abandon protectionism after winning office were quickly disappointed. On the contrary, Dr Peter Navarro, a noted protectionist and author of a book and film called Death By China, has been appointed to head a new National Trade Council based in the White House. There is already talk of America imposing tariffs on Chinese goods and of a new import tax.

During the Obama years, the US could count on discreet support from its security partners in Asia in any face-off with China. But it is much less clear that America's traditional allies will be willing to line up with an erratic, unpredictable and protectionist Trump administration that seems to be actively pushing for confrontation with Beijing.

Put together the three Ts - Taiwan, Tillerson and trade - and there seems little doubt that Mr Trump's America is steaming towards a confrontation with China. That is all the more likely given that China, under President Xi Jinping, has itself moved in a markedly more nationalist direction.

In his speech in Davos this week, Mr Xi will doubtless present himself as the voice of calm in the Pacific. In reality, China is putting increasing military, diplomatic and economic pressure on US allies in Asia. Countries such as South Korea and Singapore had become used to the idea that they could enjoy very close economic relations with China while still looking to the US for their security. But that may be changing. The Chinese government is now threatening to discriminate against South Korean companies unless the government in Seoul reverses its decision to deploy a US missile shield on its territory.

Singapore, meanwhile, is coming under increasing pressure to break ties with Taiwan, where its troops have long carried out training. China has signalled its displeasure by impounding some Singaporean troop carriers passing through Hong Kong en route from Taiwan.

Last week, China sent an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, prompting the Taiwanese air force to scramble its fighter planes. Earlier in the week, the Japanese and South Korean air forces had also been scrambled in response to Chinese manoeuvres.

So far, there have been no similar confrontations between the US and Chinese navies. But if Mr Trump and Mr Xi stick to their positions, that may only be a matter of time.

Any such confrontation will pose agonising choices for America's allies in Asia and farther afield. During the Obama years, the US could count on discreet support from its security partners in Asia in any face-off with China. But it is much less clear that America's traditional allies will be willing to line up with an erratic, unpredictable and protectionist Trump administration that seems to be actively pushing for confrontation with Beijing. If Mr Trump's America clashes with China, it cannot take the world's sympathy for granted.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2017, with the headline 'America risking a Pacific clash with China '. Print Edition | Subscribe