The provocative actions by North Korea over the past three months since President Trump took office should not come as a surprise. In his campaign for the presidency, candidate Donald Trump repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for failing to take stronger action against China’s illegal actions in the South China Sea.
These illegal actions involve creating artificial islands on disputed rocks and shoals. Some of these are well within the 200 nautical-mile economic zone of other countries, such as the Philippines. China has continued to ignore the U.N. Law of the Sea Hague Tribunal that declared China’s territorial claims over essentially the entire South China Sea as illegal. Yet China has continued to militarize these artificial islands by building runways that can accommodate scores of aircraft, in effect, stationary aircraft carriers. It has installed air defense systems as well anti-ship missile systems. China’s objectives remain constant: to achieve hegemony out to the first island chain, destroy Taiwan’s democracy, and replace the United States as the dominant power in the Western Pacific by destroying our system of alliances.
As part of President Trump’s new assertive policies for the Western Pacific to counter China’s illegal and aggressive actions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the island building must stop. He stated that our strategic patience is over. He then called for China to be denied access to these artificial islands.
Other actions that were going to be taken by the Trump administration included charging China with currency manipulation and imposing inappropriate trade barriers. To challenge China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea, very deliberate “freedom of navigation” operations were expected to occur within 12 nautical miles of the disputed artificial islands shortly after Mr. Trump took office. However, none of these new actions have been initiated to signal a more assertive new strategy. What happened?
Actually, what happened is that Chinese President Xi Jinping pre-empted the planned Trump administration’s actions against China by playing the North Korea “nuclear card.” Despite all the protestations by China that it wants a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, nothing could be further from the truth. After all, it was China and Russia that provided North Korea with the key assistance that created the North Korean nuclear program. They are now joined by Iran, which uses North Korea as their “off-site nuclear laboratory.” All three countries have helped minimize economic and financial sanctions imposed on North Korea.
Due to its dependence on Obama administration holdovers for producing policy positions on international crises, Trump officials fell into a trap that ensnared previous administrations. They were quickly convinced that they had to be nice to China in order to gain its help in resolving North Korea’s nuclear provocations. All the actions the Trump administration was going to take against China were suddenly swept off the table.
Great deference is being shown by Mr. Trump to Mr. Xi, when the exact opposite should have been taken. The Trump administration should have proceeded with the actions it was planning to take against China. It should have strongly supported Taiwan with a new, robust arms package that should have included the new, fifth-generation F-35 multi-role fighter. We should also be providing Taiwan with guided artillery shells for their 600 155-millimeter artillery pieces and appropriate assistance for their indigenous submarine program. The restriction on our port visits to Taiwan should also be reversed, starting with visits by U.S. Coast Guard vessels as a first step to a broader engagement policy.
The totalitarian Chinese regime only understands power. Being submissive is looked upon as a weakness by both China and our allies. This is not the time to go wobbly. China will only pocket any pre-emptive American “concession” and never fulfill Washington’s expectations to behave responsibly by removing a global threat, such as North Korea’s looming nuclear missiles.
If China were truly a friend, or simply in favor of a civilized world order, it would have long been doing the following: First, it would be enforcing a fair trade order instead of creating ever more difficult barriers to trade, plus regulations requiring that foreign companies surrender their technology.
Second, Beijing would be actively reversing its decades of missile and nuclear technology proliferation to North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, helping to avoid an imminent age of nuclear terror. Furthermore, China would accept Western standards of military transparency as an initial gesture to build trust with all its neighbors who increasingly fear its military aggression. Third, instead of building its various military capabilities to be able to destroy the first “Chinese” democracy on Taiwan and seeking to impose military control over the first island chain and the South China Sea, China would be destroying its new island bases and leading the adoption of fair codes of conduct that ensure peaceful resolution of sovereignty disputes and fair access to resources.
If China cannot rise to this minimal level of expectation for a nation that seeks global leadership, then President Trump has to acknowledge that his “tilt” toward China has failed, as it did for Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
• James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.
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