Cooler heads needed as China flexes its mus­cles

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Ved Nanda

U.S. -China re­la­tions got an­other jolt this month when a Chi­nese naval ves­sel snatched an Amer­i­can un­der­wa­ter drone, while a U.S. oceano­graphic ser­vice ship was al­ready set to re­trieve it.

The drone, which China seized in the South China Sea on Dec. 16, was fi­nally re­turned last Tues­day af­ter a for­mal diplo­matic protest by the United States.

On Mon­day, a Chi­nese min­istry of for­eign Af­fairs spokesman told re­porters in Bei­jing, “China firmly op­poses the fre­quent ap­pear­ance of U.S. mil­i­tary air­craft and ves­sels in wa­ters fac­ing China for close-in re­con­nais­sance and mil­i­tary sur­veys.”

Al­though the Chi­nese jus­ti­fied the seizure to avoid po­ten­tial haz­ard to nav­i­ga­tion, it was clearly in vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional mar­itime law.

Un­der the Law of the Sea Treaty, the drone, be­ing a U.S. ves­sel, is un­der ex­clu­sive U.S. ju­ris­dic­tion and thus has com­plete sov­er­eign im­mu­nity. In ad­di­tion, as it was in the Philip­pines’ ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone (an area stretch­ing 200 nau­ti­cal miles from land, where the coastal state has min­eral and fish­ing rights but which is other­wise free for nav­i­ga­tion), the U.S. was en­ti­tled to ex­er­cise free­dom of the high seas, and China had no right to in­ter­fere with the drone.

In a state­ment, the Pen­tagon

«FROM 1D ap­pro­pri­ately re­it­er­ated the U.S. com­mit­ment “to fly, sail, and op­er­ate in the South China Sea wher­ever in­ter­na­tional law al­lows.”

When the Chi­nese in­di­cated they would re­turn the drone, Pres­i­dent-Elect Don­ald Trump said we should tell China we don’t want back the drone they had stolen. Ear­lier he had irked China by ac­cept­ing a tele­phone call from the pres­i­dent of Tai­wan, as a clear de­par­ture from the “One China” prin­ci­ple, which Wash­ing­ton has con­sis­tently fol­lowed ever since it rec­og­nized China.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment claims sovereignty over Tai­wan and con­sid­ers it as a core of its re­la­tions with the U.S.

Sub­se­quently, Trump said he could seek trade con­ces­sions from China by us­ing Tai­wan as lever­age.

And on the cam­paign trail he had of­ten crit­i­cized China for de­valu­ing its cur­rency, tak­ing Amer­i­can jobs and caus­ing huge trade im­bal­ances, its mil­i­tary buildup and ex­pan­sive ter­ri­to­rial claims in the South China Sea, and not tak­ing a strong stand on North Korea’s nu­clear weapons. He has threat­ened to im­pose 45 per­cent tar­iffs on Chi­nese im­ports.

As the U.S. aban­dons its par­tic­i­pa­tion in Pres­i­dent Obama’s sig­na­ture project, the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP), China will cer­tainly fill the vac­uum and set the trade agenda un­der its own rules and stan­dards.

Tar­iffs are cur­rently un­bal­anced be­tween China and the U.S., and a ne­go­ti­ated com­pro­mise is in­deed war­ranted.

For China, which ex­ported ap­prox­i­mately $482 bil­lion in goods to the U.S. in 2015, Amer­ica is a most im­por­tant ex­port mar­ket, and cur­rent tar­iffs for im­ports on Chi­nese goods are at 2.5 per­cent for agri­cul­tural prod­ucts and 2.9 per­cent for non-agri­cul­tural prod­ucts. On the other hand, China im­ported about $116 bil­lion of U.S. goods last year, at a tar­iff rate of 9.7 per­cent for agri­cul­tural prod­ucts and 5 per­cent for non-agri­cul­tural prod­ucts.

It is a boom­ing mar­ket for the U.S. farm­ers and busi­nesses, as China’s bur­geon­ing mid­dle class prefers Amer­i­can goods. China is now also Amer­ica’s largest cred­i­tor, and if it dumped U.S. trea­suries, the U.S. econ­omy would suf­fer. But China also can­not find an­other coun­try with the sta­bil­ity that the U.S. of­fers.

If Trump ful­fills his cam­paign promise on tar­iffs, the U.S. could face re­tal­i­a­tion and both coun­tries’ economies could be se­ri­ously dam­aged. It would fur­ther in­crease the al­ready tense sit­u­a­tion be­tween the world’s two largest economies. A trade war is not an an­swer. Trump’s al­ter­na­tives, af­ter he as­sumes of­fice, are to ne­go­ti­ate broader ac­cess to the Chi­nese mar­ket for Amer­i­can com­pa­nies, de­mand en­force­ment of in­ter­na­tional in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty laws, and ne­go­ti­ate a bet­ter deal to bal­ance tar­iffs.

With China’s mil­i­tary and eco­nomic strength, it cer­tainly is flex­ing its mus­cles in pursuit of its am­bi­tion to be a ma­jor global power. To en­sure that Amer­ica con­tin­ues its prom­i­nent role in the Pa­cific, we need cool heads, strong diplo­macy, and re­li­able al­lies, such as Ja­pan, Korea and In­dia, as coun­ter­weight to China’s ag­gres­sive, ex­pan­sion­ist de­signs.

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