Trump's warships test China's red lines as trade talks grind on

So far, the Chinese side has kept its policy of "strategic composure" towards US President Donald Trump, protesting each move without linking the security disputes to trade talks.
So far, the Chinese side has kept its policy of "strategic composure" towards US President Donald Trump, protesting each move without linking the security disputes to trade talks.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Even as the United States and China near a deal on trade, the Trump administration is becoming increasingly assertive in challenging Beijing on its geopolitical red lines.

Since Sunday (March 24), the US has sailed a warship through the Taiwan Strait, released a report criticising travel restrictions in Tibet and hosted Uighur exiles at the State Department.

The moves - all of them defying China's warnings against meddling in what it views as its internal affairs - came ahead the arrival of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in Beijing for trade talks.

All three visits by US trade delegations since President Donald Trump and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping declared their Dec 1 tariff truce have been presaged by US naval patrols through territory claimed by Beijing. While it is unclear whether the operations were intended as a signal during talks, the administration appears willing to test the Communist Party's bottom line while seeking commercial concessions.

GROWING RIVALRY

The moves underscore a growing strategic rivalry that many observers expect to outlast any China-US trade deal. Trump administration officials have given tacit approval to Taiwan's request for its first purchase of new fighter jets in almost 30 years, people familiar with the matter said last week, and the US has been pressing allies to stop using telecommunications equipment made by Chinese firms such as Huawei Technologies Co over spying risks.

The White House and State Department didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

So far, the Chinese side has kept its policy of "strategic composure" towards Mr Trump, protesting against each move without linking the security disputes to trade talks. Mr Xi warned in January that a host of domestic political and economic concerns pose a serious danger to the party's rule, giving him a strong incentive to end the trade war as quickly as possible.

 
 
 

Dr Wang Dong, secretary-general of the Pangoal Institution, a Beijing-based research group, said the American moves evoked the "gunboat diplomacy" of the 19th century, when the US and other Western powers used their naval might to force open Asian markets.

'VERY DUMB'

"Even if their intention is to use this as a way to send some sort of signal to China, I think it is a very dumb one," said Dr Wang, who's also an international relations professor at Peking University. "China is not Iraq or Venezuela. The United States will not always get its way with gunboat diplomacy."

Few issues irk China more than US military support for Taiwan, which Beijing considers a province and reserves the right to take by force. The democratically run island has found a receptive audience inside Mr Trump's White House, with some officials advocating sending more warships through the Taiwan Strait, one current and one former administration official told Bloomberg in October.

"We urge the US to fully recognise the highly sensitive and harmful nature of the relevant issue," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said last Friday in response to the potential F-16 sale. Mr Geng cautioned the American side to "carefully and prudently handle the Taiwan-related issues lest it should seriously damage the cooperation between China and the US in important areas and the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait".

TAIWAN, UIGHURS

Although Mr Trump has avoided overtly recognising Taiwan since his pre-inauguration phone call with the island's president, Ms Tsai Ing-wen, he has signed legislation calling for more diplomatic and military exchanges with the island. Ms Tsai, who hails from a pro-independence party, also made what China considers to be a provocative transit stop in Hawaii on Wednesday, while visiting some of her dwindling diplomatic partners in the Pacific.

The US has complicated Beijing's efforts to consolidate control on its frontiers, dispatching warships to challenge Chinese claims in the disputed South China Sea. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has also criticised China's "abhorrent" detention of as many as one million Uighur Muslims in the country's far west, and met with a group of exiles in Washington on Tuesday.

Keeping such frictions from interfering with trade talks could become more difficult as negotiations drag on and the US pushes harder on sensitive fronts. And Mr Xi can tolerate only so much as he tries to protect his image as a strong leader capable of completing China's return to global influence after a "century of humiliation" at the hands of imperial powers.

"The US seems to be more willing to play the Taiwan card in a rather radical way," the nationalistic Global Times said in a March 6 editorial. "But such action is risky and will meet with retaliation from Beijing if it goes too far, which will, in turn, harm US interests."