Sun, Jan 15, 2017 - Page 4 News List

ANALYSIS: Trump team struggles for cohesion on China policy


Tough talk against China by the incoming administration of US president-elect Donald Trump has set the stage for showdowns on everything from security to trade and cyberspace, but contradictory signals are sowing uncertainty over how far Trump is prepared to go in confronting Beijing.

Highlighting the contested South China Sea as a potential flash point, Trump’s secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, threw out an explosive challenge to Beijing on Wednesday by calling for it be denied access to artificial islands it is building in the strategic waterway.

A Trump transition adviser told Reuters that Tillerson did not mean to suggest the new administration would impose a naval blockade, which would risk armed confrontation with China, something the new administration was not seeking.

However, another official authorized to speak on behalf of the transition team pushed back on that view, saying Tillerson “did not misspeak” when he said China should be barred from its artificial islands.

Amid the conflicting signals on policy, the team appears to be making progress on plans for a major naval buildup in East Asia to counter China’s rise.

The transition adviser told Reuters about specifics under consideration, such as basing a second aircraft carrier in the region, deploying more destroyers, attack submarines and missile defense batteries and expanding or adding new bases in Japan and Australia.

They are also looking at installing “air force long-range strike assets” in South Korea, bordering China’s nuclear-armed neighbor North Korea, said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Trump, who is to succeed US President Barack Obama on Friday, has vowed to greatly expand the US Navy to 350 ships, but his transition team has not made clear how he will fund this, amid other massive spending plans.

Trump’s pick for secretary of defense, retired US Marine Corp general James Mattis, did not endorse Tillerson’s message on the South China Sea, which would seem at odds with Washington’s own long-standing commitment to freedom of navigation.

Asked about the remarks at his confirmation hearing on Thursday, Mattis said China’s actions in the South China Sea were part of a broader attack on the world order, but said the US’ state, defense and treasury departments needed to put together an integrated policy “so we are not dealing with an incomplete or an incoherent strategy.”

The conflicting messages underscore the incoming administration’s struggle in crafting an approach to one of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing Trump, who during his election campaign repeatedly bashed China, saying it was “killing” and “raping” the US on trade.

As part of a drive to protect US jobs, Trump has threatened to declare China a currency manipulator — even though economists have said Beijing has been seeking to prop up, not weaken, its currency.

He has also threatened to slap punitive tariffs on Chinese goods, risking a trade war that could hurt both countries and the global economy.

Trump has yet to name to his national security team high-level members with deep experience of the region, leading some analysts to question whether the new administration will have enough expertise to translate rhetoric on a more robust Asia policy into action.

Trump advisers dismiss concerns their approach could prove risky or counterproductive, arguing that a “peace through strength” stance will put real muscle behind US policy in the region after decades of under-resourcing due to US distractions elsewhere in the world.

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