21 May 2019
Donald Trump's plan to leverage Southeast Asian countries against China so as to force Beijing into turning up the heat on Pyongyang may not work. Photo: Reuters
Donald Trump's plan to leverage Southeast Asian countries against China so as to force Beijing into turning up the heat on Pyongyang may not work. Photo: Reuters

Why Trump’s ‘South China Sea card’ is unlikely to work this time

An online feud between US President Donald Trump and NBA superstars Stephen Curry and LeBron James may have grabbed some headlines around the world, but what the international community is truly concerned about right now is whether Trump’s recently renewed feud with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would eventually escalate into a war.

Last week, addressing the United Nations General Assembly for the first time in his capacity as US president, Trump once again lashed out at Kim, referring to him as the “Rocket Man” in his speech, and then shortly afterwards calling him a “Madman” in a tweet.

As the US president was calling Kim names in public, Pyongyang became infuriated. Kim fired back by calling Trump a “Dotard”, or an old lunatic, while his foreign minister said Washington had made an “irredeemable mistake” by publicly insulting the paramount leader, and threatened to fire missiles at the US in retaliation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has dismissed the ongoing war of words between the US and North Korea as merely “a fight between kindergarten kids”, but it appears Washington is not just talking tough, it is following through as well. According to the Pentagon, one of its B-1B strategic bombers escorted by F-15 fighters flew over the waters east of the Korean Peninsula last Saturday as a show of military might.

As the Pentagon’s statement puts it, “this is the farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone any US combat aircraft has flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century, underscoring the seriousness with which we take Pyongyang’s reckless behavior.”

Nevertheless, despite the intense saber-rattling by both Washington and Pyongyang at this moment, neither of them can afford to ignore Beijing’s stance when it comes to whether they really want to go to war.

As we all know, ever since the onset of the crisis, Trump has been explicitly urging China on different public occasions to use its influence to bring North Korea into line. However, as Beijing has remained sluggish in responding to his call for action, it seems the US president still has another card up his sleeve: the South China Sea territorial dispute.

In his recent maiden speech to the UN, Trump stressed that “we must reject threats to sovereignty from Ukraine to the South China Sea, and we must uphold respect for law, respect for borders, and respect for culture, and the peaceful engagement these allow.”

Even though Trump didn’t mention any names during the speech, everybody could tell that his words were intended for both Russia and China.

In particular, it has become very clear Trump is determined to use the South China Sea dispute as leverage against his Chinese counterparts: if China is willing to side with the US against North Korea, then in return Washington will be more than happy to look the other way over Beijing’s ongoing military build-up in the South China Sea. Otherwise, there will be a lot more frequent US naval patrols in the disputed waters in the name of defending “the freedom of navigation”.

Is Trump’s plan going to work? Well, we very much doubt it.

It is because on one hand, the South China Sea issue is nothing more than a set of territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, and therefore in theory the US has no legitimate right to play any role there.

Also, it remains highly questionable whether the South China Sea issue can really give Washington leverage with Beijing on the North Korea nuclear crisis as President Trump wishes, since the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s major rivals in the regional dispute, have both recently extended the olive branch to Beijing in an attempt to mend fences for the sake of business opportunities.

As these countries are now working aggressively to improve relations with China, it is quite unlikely that they would dance to Washington’s tune over the South China Sea issue like they did before.

In other words, in our opinion, there is a huge question mark over whether President Trump’s plan to leverage Southeast Asian countries against China so as to force Beijing into turning up the heat on Pyongyang would really work.

That said, perhaps the only thing the rest of the world can hope for is that both the “Rocket Man” and the “Dotard” didn’t really mean it when they threatened to fire missiles at each other.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 25

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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