- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Trump administration’s vow to block Beijing from seizing territory in the South China Sea has sparked outrage among Chinese leaders, and Mr. Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal has prompted confusion and unease among some key U.S. allies.

But such moves may be just what are needed to breathe new life into Washington’s floundering strategy in East Asia, said a longtime analyst of the region, who argues that the U.S. and international media are overreacting to the broad-stroke shift in tone from the White House. Beyond the sharp rhetoric and policy swerves is a realization that the economic and strategic balance in the region was trending the wrong way for Washington.

“It’s not like the Chinese weren’t taking advantage of us,” said Patrick Cronin, who heads the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “People have to get some perspective here, and it’s hard to do that right now because it’s early and there’s a lack of clarity on the policy — because the new president is just getting his bearings.

“The media has got to give more space and time for the administration to develop and not grab every errant phrase and call it policy,” Mr. Cronin said in an interview, amid global headlines this week on White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s assertion that the administration will challenge Beijing’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

Mr. Spicer was seconding comments that Mr. Trump’s secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, had made during his Senate confirmation hearing this month.

Comparing China’s aggressive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Mr. Tillerson told lawmakers, “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, [China’s] access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”

China warned the U.S. administration against taking any action that could undermine stability between Beijing and Washington’s allies in East Asia.

China’s Global Times, a hawkish tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party, went further on Wednesday, accusing the “rookie Donald Trump” and his secretary of state nominee of sparking hostility with “arrogant, dangerous and irresponsible” statements.

The Global Times quoted Jin Canrong, an associate dean at the Renmin University of China, as saying, “If the new U.S. administration follows this route and adopts this attitude, it will lead to war between China and the U.S., and that would mean the end of the U.S. history or even all of humanity.”

Scrapping the TPP

Despite China’s anger, Mr. Cronin said, the Trump administration — including Mr. Tillerson, who is still awaiting Senate confirmation — is developing its policy toward the South China Sea and the region as a whole.

“All they are doing right now is signaling that we’re going to be tough,” said Mr. Cronin, who added that Washington’s allies in the region shouldn’t be worried.

Adm. Harry B. Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, told an audience in Australia last month that “reports of America’s abandonment of the Indo-Asia-Pacific are greatly exaggerated.” Pentagon officials said Wednesday that Defense Secretary James N. Mattis’ first overseas trip will be to South Korea and Japan next month.

Mr. Cronin also defended Mr. Trump’s decision to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive free trade pact that President Obama spent years trying to negotiate with 11 other nations, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam.

“It was too slow, too cumbersome and too opaque,” Mr. Cronin said. “Fairer, more effective bilateral agreements are what’s going to help propel our economy forward and help keep us engaged with the Asia Pacific.”

“There’s great potential here for the Trump administration to move beyond a multilateral trade agreement that was already pronounced dead and to move toward implementing a comprehensive and effective geo-economics strategy for the region that goes beyond anything we had with the Obama administration,” he said.

But others in Washington’s foreign policy establishment are not so confident about U.S. prospects in Asia under Mr. Trump.

Matthew P. Goodman, a former Obama administration official focused on Asian economics, said TPP was a way for America to “write the rules” of economic engagement in Asia.

Mr. Trump’s scrapping of the deal was “a huge blow,” Mr. Goodman told an audience Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank where he is a senior analyst.

“For the last five years, spanning a lot of time, effort and capital, we invested in this initiative, and we’ve walked away from it, so it sort of generally blows our credibility,” he said. “Now, we also don’t have an organizing principle for our economic engagement in the region.

“It’s going to be hard to reinvent that,” Mr. Goodman said. “Without that credibility, I’m not sure how many people are going to listen and follow.”

Some in the region say they intend to push the TPP forward without Washington.

Australian leaders signaled that they may even invite China into negotiations for the revised multilateral deal that does not include Washington. But the Japanese say they want no part of that and assert that the deal would be “meaningless” without the U.S., which accounted for roughly 60 percent of the combined gross domestic product of all the nations involved in TPP.

Dealing directly with China

Concerns are also soaring that Mr. Trump may trigger a trade war with Beijing.

The U.S. is going to need to strike a careful balance with China economically, said Scott Kennedy, who heads the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at CSIS.

“Two-way trade last year was about $600 billion between the U.S. and China, which supports, according to the U.S.-China Business Council, about 2.6 million jobs in the United States,” Mr. Kennedy said at the think tank’s event Wednesday. “The U.S. now has about $230 billion invested in China and last year Chinese investment in the United States was about $120 billion. That has continued to rise and is now far greater than the annual flows in the other direction.”

Mr. Kennedy argued that the “glass is still three-quarters full,” even if there may appear to be difficult times ahead in the relationship. He pointed to a recent survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China that found almost 70 percent of American companies operating in China are profitable and roughly 20 percent break even.

But the American Chamber also said that 81 percent of companies responding to the survey felt “less welcome in China” than they have in the past and that 1 in 4 companies have moved operations out of China in the past three years or plan to do so.

Dean Cheng, a China analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the Trump administration can use the situation to its advantage.

While it may appear the administration seeks an escalation in the South China Sea, Mr. Cheng said in an interview this week that U.S. military action won’t be the White House’s “default response” to Chinese saber-rattling.

Given their backgrounds in business and finance, Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson “won’t go right to the guns,” he said, adding that the two are more likely to focus on leveraging their ties to U.S. companies working with Chinese partners to place economic pressure on Beijing.

By persuading American firms to curtail or terminate their ties to critical Chinese industries, such as manufacturing and natural resource development, the administration could persuade Beijing to pull back on its push in the South China Sea without firing a shot, said Mr. Cheng.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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