U.S. and China Have Bigger Problems Than a Trade War


Fake islands, the Taiwan Travel Act and Chinese outreach to Russia are making military conflict more likely.

The tit-for-tat trade sanctions fight between the U.S and China may be getting the headlines and rocking financial markets, but some less-noticed recent flare-ups between the world’s preeminent powers may present more lasting, and perilous, complications for American policymakers.

The new National Defense and National Security Strategies produced by the Donald Trump administration made clear that Washington has a decidedly more pessimistic outlook on its future relationship with China. For years, the U.S. had focused on China’s potential to integrate more effectively into the international system; it is now girding for a return to the great-power competition of the 20th century.

Chinese officials, who spend a lot more time poring over U.S. strategy documents than most American do, certainly interpreted this shift as presaging a downturn in relations, preparation for military conflict, and confirmation of their long-held belief that the U.S. seeks to blunt China’s rise and limit its global influence.

Meanwhile, in response to China’s growing military and diplomatic assertiveness in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy has gradually routinized its freedom of navigation operations in the Spratly Islands — conducting one every two or so months since early 2017. In late March, the Navy conducted — and publicized — a pointedly ambitious operation near Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef, intended to signal that the U.S. considers the reef a “low-tide elevation” rather than a true island, challenging China’s claim to sovereignty and a surrounding 12-mile exclusive territorial area.

China was likely also displeased when last month the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson visited Da Nang — the first U.S. carrier trip to Vietnam since 1975.

In response, China’s Defense Ministry condemned the Mischief Reef operation as a “serious military provocation,” and shortly thereafter conducted its own large naval exercise, involving 40 ships and an aircraft carrier, off of Hainan Island on China’s southeast coast. This week, U.S. officials publicly called out China’s installation of radar-jamming equipment (with obvious military applications) on two of its newly constructed islands in the Spratly chain.

Yet China’s most tendentious act may have been verbal rather than martial. On a visit to Moscow this month, China’s new defense minister, General Wei Fenghe, declared, “The Chinese side has come to Moscow to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia, and that we’ve come to support you.”