Whether or not U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July 23 speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum was a declaration of a new cold war, relations between China and the United States have reached an unprecedented low.
But this is far from the end of the story. The U.S. presidential election has just entered its 100-day countdown. Under re-election pressure and facing changes in the mood of voters, the Trump administration may play more tough cards against China.
The question now is, just how bad can the relationship get? Will Trump launch a limited war against China to garner voter support at home?
It is possible for the U.S. to wage a limited war against China, but a precondition is that the American public must be convinced that a war is needed to safeguard U.S. national interests, not intended to promote the election of a certain politician. Otherwise, people won’t support it, let alone willingly pay for it.
The China hawks in Washington believe now — and have for a long time — that the U.S. must contain China’s rise by all means, de-couple from China economically, cut off China politically and confront it militarily. For them, waging a limited war in the South China Sea is not only likely but even necessary, and better sooner than later.
For Trump, however, the current priority is winning re-election, and all long-term strategic plans must be built on the basis of future presidential power. He is thus faced with a dilemma. Opening a limited war against China might serve short-term election politics, but election politics cannot be used to justify a limited war against China. The contradiction makes it very difficult to turn such an option into reality on the current U.S. political stage.
Against the background of election politics, Trump has ample motivation to consider instigating a moderate military crisis or conflict in the South China Sea to boost his approval ratings at home. To him, such an option would be a political showpiece whose goal is to paint Trump as heroic and just — in short, a “winner.”
In theory, a military conflict could take one of the following forms:
• A collision of vessels, which would attract international attention and is relatively easy to manage and control.
In October 2018, the U.S. naval destroyer USS Decatur narrowly avoided a collision with the PLA Navy’s DDG 170. The two passed only 41 meters apart. But this scenario won’t guarantee that the U.S. side “wins.” There’s always the risk of leaving the impression at home that the White House isn’t tough enough against China.
• Bombarding maritime features, which entails a careful choice of targets, because different islets and features have different conditions.
Attacking such features as the Yongshu or Zhubi reefs, on which China already has build many structures, may invite strong reactions from China, and easily escalate conflict. Huangyan Island is a subject of a dispute between China and the Philippines, and China’s capacity for actual control is relatively weak. The U.S. may achieve swift military success if it attempts to control Huangyan Island, with relatively low risk of escalation.
But the question is how to get the Philippines to sign off. In his July 27 State of the Union address, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte explicitly stated his opposition to resolving the South China Sea issue by war, and his country won’t serve as any country’s pawn, which to some extent indicates that Manila won’t endorse a U.S. strike in the South China Sea.
• Controlling unclaimed features.
The advantage of this tack is that this comes with virtually no military resistance, and the risk of escalation is low. The downside, however, is that such a move would have no political significance. Instead of fulfilling the goal of confronting China or challenging Chinese territorial claims, it may result in some or all claimant nations in the South China Sea disputants condemning the U.S. as a group.
• Helping claimant(s) confront China in the South China Sea.
Vietnam may be a potential option for the U.S. According to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative report, since China inaugurated its 2020 summer fishing moratorium, illicit fishing by Vietnamese vessels has risen to an extremely serious level. Chases interceptions and standoffs have occurred many times. The U.S. and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding in July aimed at enhancing the latter’s capacity to enforce fishing law and administer the waters. The U.S. seems to be heading toward helping Vietnam secure its fishing and navigation claims.
The possibility that Vietnamese fishing boats could play a leading role, while corresponding Chinese and U.S. forces wrangle in confrontation cannot be excluded. To the U.S., such a scenario, with the Vietnamese fishermen playing weak, may win sympathy from the international community and result in public opinion pressure on China.
The downside, however, is that this entails close cooperation between the U.S. and Vietnam, and the two parties have a long way to go toward carrying out joint fishery patrols. By inflicting injury on themselves, Vietnamese fishing boats will bring tremendous pressure into domestic politics. There still are considerable uncertainties when it comes to Vietnam’s position. The feasibility of this scenario remains low in the near term.
According to the Rand report titled War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable, China is more willing to launch a limited war against the U.S. in the waters off Taiwan, while the U.S. is more willing to launch a limited war against China in the South China Sea area. From both the midrange or long-term perspective, the risk of military conflict in the South China Sea is very high. But in the near term, particularly in light of the presidential election, it would be difficult for the U.S. to find a model that would establish a positive U.S. image while at the same time attempting to control a war. Third-party cooperation is indispensable in simultaneously meeting both needs. For now at least, neither the Philippines nor Vietnam has taken a firm stance on the U.S. side. It is thus unrealistic for Trump to attempt to boost his re-election chances through a conflict in the South China Sea.