China’s worldview prompts it to probe the strength and resolve of the dominant power, and President-elect Donald Trump will inevitably be tested.
In recent years, China has carefully tested and evaluated each new American president.
“The Leninist core of Chinese leadership thinking makes Beijing probe assiduously for international opportunities stemming from changes in counterparts’ personalities, policies, and power,” Dr. Andrew Erickson, a leading expert on China, explained to The Daily Caller News Foundation. China sees power in relative terms; one country’s loss is another’s gain. Weaknesses, even in a dominant power, are vulnerabilities that can be exploited.
For former President George W. Bush, his test was the 2001 Hainan Island Incident.
On April 1, 2001, only a few months into Bush’s first term, a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-8II interceptor fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3E ARIES II signal intelligence aircraft near Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Chinese pilot Lieutenant Commander Wang Wei died in the crash.
Although it became an international incident, the crash itself was not the real test for the Bush administration; rather, the test was the pattern of increasingly-dangerous interceptions which occurred prior to the accident.
“The PLA began its recent pattern of aggressive interceptions of U.S. reconnaissance flights in December 2000,” a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report notes. Between December 2000 and April 13, 2001, there were 44 PLA interceptions of U.S. reconnaissance flights in international airspace over the East China Sea and South China Sea.
Chinese interceptor fighter jets came within 30 feet of U.S. aircraft six times. In two instances, the distance between Chinese and U.S. aircraft was less than 10 feet.
Through repeated interceptions, Beijing appeared interested in determining whether or not Washington would call its bluff. The U.S. did exactly that, and the results were fatal.
Following the incident, China scaled back interceptions of U.S. surveillance aircraft, while the U.S. did not make any substantive concessions to the Chinese.
A few weeks after President Barack Obama took office, the Chinese tested him by harassing ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable.
China took what retired Navy Capt. Raul Pedrozo called an “aggressive, unsafe, and unprofessional action against an unarmed naval auxiliary vessel.”
On March 8, 2009, five Chinese vessels — specifically a Navy intelligence ship, a government fisheries-patrol vessel, a state oceanographic patrol vessel, and two fishing trawlers — surrounded the Impeccable in international waters about 75 miles off the coast of Hainan Island.
The fishing ships came within 25 feet of the U.S. ship and even stopped in front of it, forcing the Impeccable to take emergency action to avoid a collision.
The Impeccable returned the next day accompanied by a guided-missile destroyer, a reasonable yet temporary solution overlooking a far more complicated and troublesome problem that has continuously resurfaced during Obama’s time in office.
The Chinese fishing vessels dispatched to harass the Impeccable were part of China’s Third Sea Force, its Maritime Militia. The threat has gone unacknowledged and unaddressed by the Obama administration.
As Trump prepares to take office, he can expect to be tested as well, possibly by issues left unresolved by the previous administration.
“Beijing’s longstanding opposition to key principles of international air-sea law and its growing assertiveness in the South China Sea make it view ‘unapproved’ American activities there as contravening vital interests,” Erickson told TheDCNF. “Recent evolution of bilateral frictions suggests that China might test Trump by using Maritime Militia personnel and vessels to pose some sort of ambiguity, complication, and possible harassment to a U.S. freedom-of-navigation operation.”
China uses its Third Sea Force as a paramilitary force while portraying units as noncombatants. The ambiguous appearance allows China’s Maritime Militia to engage in “gray zone aggression.”
“Make no mistake, these are state-organized, -developed, and -controlled forces operating under a direct military chain of command,” Erickson revealed at a House Committee on Armed Services hearing in September.
“Trump and his team must prepare for manifold contingencies from the start. Among them, a Maritime Militia challenge would stand out for the Obama administration’s failure to pave the way with basic public preparations,” Erickson asserted. “The Administration’s apparent dismissal thus far of repeated recommendations that it at least mention China’s Maritime Militia by name to begin raising awareness can only have emboldened Beijing.”
“This is a force that thrives within the shadows of plausible deniability,” Erickson argued in September. “China’s Maritime Militia can only be as deceptive and plausibly deniable as we allow it to be through our own silence and our own inaction.”
Throughout the Obama administration, the Third Sea Force has repeatedly made its presence known. Outside of the incident with the Impeccable, the Maritime Militia was also involved in the 2011 sabotage of two Vietnamese hydrographic vessels, 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal, 2014 repulsion of Vietnamese vessels near a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters, and 2015 shadowing of the USS Lassen during a freedom-of-navigation operation.
Although it has yet to do so, the Obama administration still has time to address this challenge.
“To avert a potential setback or crisis, the Obama Administration must immediately ‘call out’ China’s Maritime Militia officially in public, share information with countries at risk, and communicate clearly to Beijing that any ships ignoring repeated warnings by U.S. vessels to desist from disrupting or harassing them will be treated as military-controlled and handled accordingly,” Erickson told TheDCNF. “Regardless of what leadership and stewardship President Obama ultimately demonstrates in this regard, Trump and his team must prepare to pass their China test. The world is watching.”
While Trump promised to get tough on China on the campaign trail, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Trump and his policies, making him a likely target for persistent probing early on in his first term. “How he responds will reverberate across the region and around the world,” Erickson emphasized.
By firmly upholding the rules of the road, Trump has the ability to pave the way for sustainable U.S.-China cooperation within a rules-based international order. Failure to do so will result in a continuation and possibly an exacerbation of existing challenges.
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