Memo to the (Future) President: 5 Things Clinton and Trump Need to Know about China

China’s J-15 jet fighter prototype. Wikimedia Commons/Simon Yang

What the next president will have to face from Beijing on Day One.

As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump continue to sling accusations—and as their campaigns sink to new lows—they may want to remember that dangerous states continue to threaten America.

At the top of that list of adversaries is the People’s Republic of China. Here are the top five things for them to keep in mind.

Scarborough Shoal Could Be This Century’s Poland

Beijing seized Scarborough Shoal, just 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon, in early 2012.

Then, both Chinese and Philippine vessels surrounded the South China Sea feature. Washington tried to end the confrontation by getting both sides to agree to withdraw their craft. Only Manila complied, however, and China has remained in control of the feature since then.

The Obama administration did not enforce the agreement it brokered. If it thought inaction could defuse tensions, it was making a Chamberlain-type mistake. Chinese policymakers, obviously emboldened by their success, then ramped up pressure on Second Thomas Shoal, another Philippine feature in the South China Sea, and the Senkakus in the East China Sea, controlled by Japan but contested by China. The Chinese, in short, simply broadened the geographic scope of their provocative activities.

The White House, fortunately, changed course. In March, President Obama privately warned Beijing of, in the words of the Financial Times, “serious consequences” should China begin to cement over coral at Scarborough, thereby making permanent its act of aggression. In April, four U.S. Air Force A-10s, feared ground-attack craft, flew “an air and maritime domain awareness mission in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal,” reinforcing the administration’s point. Analysts Zack Cooper and Jake Douglas believe the A-10 flights deterred Beijing from reclaiming Scarborough at that time.

Deterrence is not eternal, however. This month, a source told the South China Morning Post, which increasingly seems to have a pipeline to Beijing, that it was “a must for China” to reclaim Scarborough and that reclamation could be sometime after the China-hosted G-20, which takes place next week, and before the U.S. election.

Whether this reporting is reliable or not, Scarborough is a flashpoint. Some say it is like the Sudetenland in 1938, a quick conquest made possible by Western vacillation, but perhaps it is more like Poland in 1939, where nations in fact drew the line.

So what should Washington do? Chinese admirals need to see the U.S. Navy surround Scarborough with ships and, along with the U.S. Air Force, dominate the skies over that feature. Moreover, those admirals need to believe the United States will stay at the shoal, outlasting them.

Reversing China’s aggression will have a beneficial effect, not only in the South China Sea but across the world.

Does this policy carry risk? Yes, but due to past mistakes, there are no longer any risk-free solutions in China’s peripheral seas. As a first priority, we need to avoid handing victories to the worst elements in the Chinese capital. Over time, resolute policies will reduce incident risk.

One other point: during his campaign, Donald Trump has questioned the value of America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea. Whether he is right or wrong—he’s wrong, by the way—now is not the time to unwind the security architecture of East Asia.

On the contrary, at this time we should work more closely with allies and friends. Like-minded states can help keep the peace as they have done in other regions. China may be powerful at the moment, but it is now—and in the long run—no match for the United States, India, Japan and Australia, not to mention their assorted friends.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Is Actually a Good Idea

Both Clinton and Trump are running against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed twelve-nation free-trade pact currently in trouble in Congress. President Obama announced the TPP in November 2011 as part of his “pivot” to Asia.

Clyde Prestowitz, the founder of the Economic Strategy Institute, believes TPP won’t matter much to American security. Writing in the New York Times this month, the former Reagan and Clinton official says many of the other eleven signers already have trade agreements with the United States. Yes, they do, but TPP is substantially more comprehensive, which is why nations want to be inside the new club.

Newsflash to Americans: there will be a region-wide trade pact in East Asia. It will either be America’s TPP or China’s RCEP, the misnamed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

President Obama is right: trade won’t stop just because obstructionists prevail in Congress. Some nation will write the rules of international commerce. That nation will be either America or China, and as Prestowitz recognizes, geopolitical influence follows trade. Countries, in fact, see TPP as a test of American leadership, and not just in the Pacific.

Beijing criticizes TPP, and that should be our cue to ratify it.

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