How To Stumble Into WWIII
The irony of Donald Trump is that the man who’s eager to avert a new cold war with nuclear-armed Russia is liable to stumble into a hot war with nuclear-armed China.
The headlines from yesterday’s first full weekday of the Trump presidency were dominated by noise. An executive order withdrawing from the awful Trans-Pacific Partnership? Not a surprise. The hiring freeze for federal workers? Whatever, the federal workforce is already the smallest since 2008. A promise to cut regulations by 75%? Believe it when you see it.
Lost in all that noise was the briefing by the new White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “The U.S. is going to make sure we protect our interests” in the South China Sea, he said.
Exactly what those interests are, he didn’t say. “If those islands are, in fact, in international waters and not part of China proper, yeah, we’ll make sure we defend international interests from being taken over by another country.”
Notice how he moved the goal posts from “our interests” to “international interests.”
The domestic press mostly yawned. But the foreign press took notice. And the Chinese press warned of the potential for a “devastating confrontation.”
Sigh… We interrupt our dirge for a sorely needed moment of comic relief…
sean spicer looks like the guy in the group of survivors that hides the fact he was bitten by a zombie pic.twitter.com/NelW22afc8
— Eli Terry (@EliTerry) January 23, 2017
Back to the topic at hand…
For an administration that’s supposed to be “isolationist”… it sure seems to be ratcheting up Hillary Clinton’s “Asian pivot” policy.
We’ve been on the case from the beginning: During her term as secretary of state in late 2011, Clinton laid out an Obama administration plan in Foreign Policy magazine, shifting America’s global military priorities. The United States would wind down its wars in the Islamic world and “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region — where the Pentagon would position 60% of its naval assets by 2020.
Chinese leaders understandably saw themselves as the target of the pivot. “America’s strategic move east is aimed in practical terms at pinning down and containing China and counterbalancing China’s development,” said the state news agency Xinhua.
The plan was well underway by mid-2013 when a Foreign Policy writer declared, “The U.S. military is encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports.” Indeed…
Note those two circles in the lower left; that’s the disputed territory in the South China Sea. It’s claimed by not only China but by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines. In the event of conflict between China and the Philippines, the United States has treaty obligations to side with the Philippines.
“It’s just a matter of time before some incident or accident at sea sparks a war,” says Jim Rickards.
For months, the United States has conducted “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea — not that China is threatening anyone’s freedom to navigate the waters it claims. And as we mentioned last week, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson has proposed blockading the South China Sea.
“Attempting to deny China access by a blockade or other means would be tantamount to an act of war,” Jim reminds us. “China fired back immediately. A leading Communist Chinese publication said, ‘Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent China access to the islands will be foolish.’
“All it would take to start a war is some spark such as a collision at sea or an attack based on mistaken identity or misunderstood intentions. For example, an accidental collision at night between a Philippines naval vessel and a Chinese fishing boat resulting in Chinese casualties has the potential to start the next world war. Now, I’m not saying it necessarily would, but the potential exists.”
But let’s leave aside the worst-case scenario right now. Let’s connect the dots between Hillary’s pivot and one of Trump’s major campaign pledges.
Under the pivot, the military is slowly concentrating its naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region. Meanwhile, a Trump campaign memo from last October promises “a Manhattan Project urgency to rebuild our navy.” At present, the Navy has 272 deployable ships; Trump wants to grow that to 350.
That won’t come cheap. The Congressional Research Service’s naval specialist said this month that’ll cost at least $5 billion a year for the next 30 years. And that’s just to build the ships; day-to-day operations and maintenance will be even more.
While we’ve been forecasting a collision between Trump and a GOP Congress over spending priorities — and we still expect that to be the case — Republicans have generally been united in pushing for more military spending.