Foreign Policy

Keep the Pressure on China

From trade negotiations to a military buildup, Beijing should be put in check.

Harold Hutchison · Feb. 28, 2019

President Donald Trump announced in two tweets that upcoming tariffs on goods from China would be delayed due to the progress of the talks. This could include a summit in Mar-a-Lago to conclude a new trade agreement. This is a sign that the trade war so many have decried has not necessarily developed to America’s detriment.

In fact, if anything, China is now facing a serious issue with a ticking clock, thanks in part to the Marcus Island motherlode. Beijing once had a near-monopoly on rare-earth metals and used it as leverage against Japan and other U.S. allies. Now, Japan has its own stockpile that is well out of China’s reach for the foreseeable future. China’s leverage is thus greatly diminished.

China had been able to count on a relatively docile United States — at least in the area of trade. Well, America is not so docile anymore, with the election of President Trump. China has been used to America not taking it seriously on trade. Bill Clinton pretty much bent over, George W. Bush had bigger fish to fry in the form of radical Islamic terrorism, and Barack Obama was too busy apologizing for America, giving the store away to Iran, and otherwise ignoring threats to do much about China.

Trump, though, has applied the pressure in other ways besides the trade war. His strategy with North Korea has managed to lessen the tensions in that hot spot — the collapse of this week’s summit notwithstanding. The White House has no illusions about Kim Jong-un’s character or brutality as a dictator, but at the same time, if the U.S. can get North Korea to partially or completely denuclearize (something Obama managed to make more difficult), it’s worth these diplomatic efforts.

The removal of North Korea as a card to play hurts China as well. A potential Second Korean War (more accurately a resumption of the 1950-1953 war) had the potential to pin American forces down, enabling China to make a move in, say, the South China Sea. Now, with a real potential for peace, China’s finding the Pacific Fleet is not so tied down.

So, how do we keep the pressure on China? For starters, building up the Navy is a big part of this. The more hulls in the water, the easier America can respond to regional crises without having to open the door for China.

In addition, it allows the United States to threaten the tankers that would provide China oil — and force the People’s Liberation Army Navy to cover even more territory far from home. The economic boost from a massive naval buildup is a secondary benefit to the improved geopolitical situation.

Second, America must help Japan develop the Marcus Island discovery and to get those materials to market as quickly as possible. The sooner Beijing feels that crunch, the sooner that Xi will have to make some hard decisions that will be related to things like China’s military budget. Cutting into China’s military modernization plans is a good thing — especially as the Department of Defense has been trying to rebuild its own capabilities.

Finally, Trump needs to look for other openings to pressure China. In this case, weapons sales. Lockheed recently offered India a highly advanced version of the F-16. This is a plane that perhaps could be exported to Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines to bolster their defenses against Chinese aggression.

America defeated to the Soviet Union without firing a shot almost three decades ago, and the Soviets had a much more potent military arsenal than China. The right pressure, applied the right way, can achieve a similar result across the Pacific.

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