President Trump’s tensions with Beijing are boiling over in the South China Sea.
A recent incident between a Chinese ship and a U.S. Navy destroyer startled military experts and even led Vice President Mike Pence to deliver a stern warning.
Tensions are already high between the U.S. and China over trade and claims from the White House that Beijing is trying to meddle ahead of the midterms to undermine Trump. Now the confrontations in the South China seas are becoming another worrying flashpoint.
The Navy’s USS Decatur had an “unsafe” interaction with a Chinese military vessel last week. The Chinese vessel headed aggressively toward the Decatur, while it carried out maneuvers near Gaven Reef, a disputed island in the South China Sea.
The U.S. often conducts military movements in disputed areas of the South China Sea and East China Sea, which are claimed by China and other nations.
Chinese ships will regularly make their presence known to the Navy but last week’s incident was unusually provocative according to Bonnie Glaser, an Asia-Pacific security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The difference this time, Glaser said, was the Chinese ship sought to interfere with the U.S ship’s operation, rather than shadow it as they usually do.
That has experts wondering whether the incident signals a tougher approach from China.
“We really are not 100 percent confident whether at the highest level the Chinese issued new rules of engagement of how to respond to U.S. ships and aircraft, because this is out of the ordinary,” she said.
Senior military officers, however, are “not convinced that this is the way China’s going to react to ever interaction that we have, Glaser added. “[They] didn’t seem as alarmed as I anticipated.”
But the incident received the attention of the White House.
During a speech on Thursday, Pence detailed the administration’s claims that China is launching an anti-Trump influence campaign ahead of the midterms. Trump first made the explosive charge, which China denies, at the United Nations General Assembly.
In his speech, Pence also referenced the incident with the Navy destroyer.
“Despite such reckless harassment, the United States Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate whenever international law allows and our national interests demand,” Pence told the audience at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington.
“We will not be intimidated and we will not stand down.”
Pence’s speech was a comprehensive listing of the administration’s issues with China, from trade to election meddling. And the tough tone troubled many China watchers.
Glaser called Pence’s stance a “very confrontational approach.”
“I think the Chinese increasingly believe Trump really doesn’t want solutions to problems, doesn’t want a trade deal, just really wants to contain China and thwart China’s rise,” Glaser told The Hill.
“This is a common narrative in China, certainly nothing new, but I think Vice President Pence’s speech yesterday will bolster that view, without any suggestion of how we can move forward, without any discussion about common interests that we share with China, and putting all the blame on them.”
Dean Cheng with the conservative Heritage Foundation offered a similar assessment.
“If you’re the Chinese, you see a strategic effort by the United States to close off China. You see the Americans amping up cooperation with the Japanese – always a source of tension – and if you’re the Chinese you believe you bear no responsibility whatsoever for any of this,” Cheng said.
Tensions between the U.S. and China have been simmering for months. Washington and Beijing are locked in a trade war, trading tit-for-tat tariffs on billions in goods. Trump has warned that more will come and trade discussions between the two major powers have broken down.
Trump last month also said that Chinese President Xi Jinping was “not … a friend of mine anymore” over the meddling claims.
Now those strains are now spilling over into the military sphere.
The Pentagon last week announced that an October meeting between Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chinese defense officials, meant to discuss issues of security, was being put on hold. Both sides are blaming each other for the cancelation.
Cheng said the U.S. and China have long had “festering trade disputes,” with Trump bringing his own “disruptiveness” to the mix. But he worries the ship incident and cancellation of the defense meeting could signal that a perfect storm is brewing.
“They’re not directly tied to each other, but they all feed into this bumbling caldron of declining U.S.-Chinese security relations,” he warned.
Glaser told The Hill that she believes there is potential the two countries could “slide into the 21st century version of the Cold War.”
The Chinese might “dig in and look for other ways to protect their interests which will include signing trade agreements with other countries to try and protect themselves,” Glaser floated.
But “it could get more confrontational,” she added.
Glaser also sees a broader push in the Trump administration to paint China as an adversary.
“I don’t think it necessarily means we’re heading toward a military conflict, but there is this discussion that keeps going on … that the U.S. wants to decouple from China, or disengage. I do think that there are people in the Trump administration that want to do that.”
There are still some positive signs.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is slated to be in Beijing next week to meet with a range of officials, including Xi. The stop is part of his larger Asia trip, which will include a meeting with Kim Jong Un in North Korea.
While the priorities of the China visit are unclear, Glaser predicts the U.S.-China relationship “will pretty much be on hold until after the midterm elections.”
“The Chinese have some hope that some of what is going on is being motivated by political concerns and that there might be more of a chance for some reasonable, constructive dialogue with the United States after the midterms,” she told an audience at a CSIS forum Friday.
Cheng said the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of trade between the U.S. and China also argue against any serious military showdown.
“That’s a lot of interest groups on both sides of the Pacific that would be affected,” he said. “I think there are lot of voices that are saying, ‘look, they’re trade issues, they’re bad, but it would be so much worse if things became militarized. Let’s not do that.’’
The bad news, however, is “it’s not clear what either side is doing to reduce tension,” Cheng added.
“I think it is safe to say that the Defense Department and the State Department views all of this with great seriousness precisely because this is not Iraq, this is not Afghanistan. These are major powers with the full portfolio of capabilities, space, cyber, nuclear, as well as land sea and air forces,” he said.
“If we get into a dustup, this is not a hundred days of bombing and no casualties.”