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Here is a potentially rich source of trouble with enormous consequences for the region and the rest of the world. No wonder that for the past few years, defence spending in Asia has eclipsed that in Europe. No wonder that the “coming war between the United State and China” is a topic discussed almost as frequently in chancelleries and defence academies around the world as it is explored by writers on international affairs and journalists struck more by the potential for Sino-US contention than the fruits of cooperation.

In China, the United States has never faced a strategic rival of such size and power, and one so determined to regain what it regards as its rightful place in the world. Neither has it ever been bound to such a rival so closely by ties of trade, finance and cooperation on a wide range of international issues, from anti-terrorism to anti-money-laundering. The two countries are locked in embrace. Or at least they are until one of them, most probably China, comes around to the view that it is more likely to secure its strategic objectives in opposition to rather than in partnership with the United States. Soon, surely, Washington’s benign neglect or apparent disinterest in certain issues crucial to China might no longer be regarded as good enough for Beijing. It is not hard to imagine what such issues and objectives might be. The forcible incorporation of Taiwan would be high on the list. So would humiliating Japan by depriving it of some of its islands and surrounding seas. Another prize worth fighting for, in the right conditions, would be that of ensuring, by whatever means necessary, acceptance on the part of rival claimants in south-east Asia of China’s claims to the vast maritime estate known (conveniently) as the South China Sea.

Each of these advances would upend the status quo in East Asia. At least two of them would trigger alliance obligations on the part of the United States reminiscent of those that propelled the powers to war in Europe in 1914. All of them, whether they led to war or not, would be disastrous for the global economy, disrupting trade and sapping public confidence in the region and beyond.

Would Donald Trump rise to such a challenge? Would the man who pledged to “put America first” take his country to war against China over Taiwan or a handful of uninhabited Japanese islands? Is he not more likely, on grounds of costs and the need to please his supporters at home, to lower the US military guard in Asia Pacific, and thereby encourage China to pursue the strategic breakout its seeks from the string of countries with US defence guarantees that surround its southern and eastern approaches? A glance at the US military dispositions in the Western Pacific depicted in the IISS’s latest edition of The Military Balance shows why China feels hemmed in along its maritime frontiers.
Of course, China does not know the answers to the questions posed above, which is exactly as intended. But it may be prepared to guess some of them, and that could be dangerous for all concerned. Beijing certainly will have given careful thought to the meaning of Trump’s electoral victory, both in terms of what might be achieved at the Xi-Trump summit but more importantly its implications for ties over the longer term. It would be comforting, but possibly mistaken, to think that members of the Trump administration had done the same. 

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