Preventing the outbreak of Trump’s Falklands War

July 30, 2020 09:02
Photo: Reuters

Last week, the US Department of State ordered the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, only to be followed by Pompeo’s historic speech, “Communist China and the Free World’s Future”. Few would disagree that the series of events implies an apparent escalation of tensions between US and China, and plausibly is the most important watershed moment for Chinese foreign policy over the past year, save from perhaps the Sino-Indian border conflict near Ladakh in May. We are, today, very close – too close to be comfortable – to the potential outbreak of a semi-hot or hot war between China and the US, which, history has for times warned us, could rapidly deterioriate into Third World War in a matter of weeks. This may sound hyperbolic, but I must remind you that we cannot, simply, place too much faith in the common sense of our so-called world leaders.

As the political analyst San Yu commented on 25 Jul in his “At the Eve of Pearl Harbour Strike”, Chinese foreign policy analysts and diplomats are filled to the brim with anachronistic perceptions concerning America’s domestic situation. Most Chinese people are stuck in the pre-COVID-19 mindset, which assumes, per Chinese populists, too, that the West’s decoupling from the world’s second largest economy would come with the costs of a major economic recession, which businesses and salarymen would be unwilling to bear. Yet with the unpredicted COVID-19 lockdown, the deleterious consequences of decoupling-cum-recession is no longer an option, but a reality that billions of people in the West are already experiencing on a daily basis. With or sans China, little difference realistically can be felt by the average man on the streets of, say, Detroit or Memphis. The marginal cost for escalation has dwindled, whereas the marginal utility – stemming from inflamed nationalistic sentiments and the yearning for projecting aggression – has surged.

Trump's Falklands Situation

Since the beginning of the coronavirus global outbreak in March, Trump has left his incompetence on full display to the whole world – and his own citizens. As of 28 July, about 150,000 American lives have been lost to COVID-19, a toll equal to the death tolls of three Vietnam Wars. And it’s only been three months. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has equally spun out of control, at one point compelling Trump to take shelter in a secure bunker. He is now desperately deploying federal officers into Democratic-run cities to handle protests, which ironically resembles Beijing's rumoured decision of sending People's Armed Police officers to Hong Kong exactly one year ago.

While Carrie Lam has another 20 months to handle Hong Kong problems before her next election, Trump has fewer than 14 weeks. In a bid to secure his re-election in November, Trump recognises an urgent need to utilize any resources he could still mobilize to win an honorable victory. As the internal situation spins out of control, he can only redirect attention outwards, and his only comparable rival today is China. This situation is very much akin to Margaret Thatcher’s in 1982, when she, in face of domestic general strikes (and coincidentally Hong Kong problems with China too), resorted to the Falkland Islands — victory in an "easy" regional war, far away from core controversies, at a "very controllable" scale — to prolong her political life.

For a quick, direct and hot conflict with China, the South China Sea might be a "comfortable" target for Trump. First, it has the kind of territorial dispute like that the UK has claimed against Argentina in 1982. Second, battle around rarely-populated islands in boundless seas means the scale of battle, and thus, damage control, is relatively handy. And third, compared to previous dusty melee skirmishes in the Himalayas, Trump’s High Command can have a much better grip of the frontline in a hi-tech, air-naval battle, as well as to minimize disturbance to his Indo-Pacific allies. Although a “tactically” controllable war with the world’s third strongest military superpower remains a very dangerous idea, Trump has no time to think “strategically”. His reign of arbitrary terror over the United States will come to an end, if he cannot instigate this necessary conflict, as the final straw for his second term.

Immediate actions necessary to de-escalate the South China Sea crisis

With the tense situation today, clashes at the South China Sea area could break out in a matter of days. The world’s thought leaders must prioritize, speed up in discussing and coming up with immediate relief plans to ease tensions, so as to prevent further deepening of global political rifts, and to avoid unnecessary human sacrifices.

From the Chinese perspective, more plausible would be an economic solution instead of a political or military one. As I have published in Hong Kong on 25 July and state media Global Times' editorial on 27 July agreed, China could immediately devise a reprise of its recent “shock therapy”. Just like the quick drafting and passing of the Hong Kong version of the National Security Law, China may now propose another reformist “shock therapy”, a structural macroeconomic New Deal, with highlights in policy changes in regard of foreign investments, and have the Deal outlined and discussed before Trump pushes his war buttons like he did against Iran in January.

The benefit of doing so lies in its possibility to immediately restore American popular support for China — from the “silent majority”, the vast variety of earnest American businesses and workers being forcefully detached from China due to COVID-19 lockdowns. The announcement of such reform, and subsequential drafting and deliberating processes of the New Deal will buy time for both China and the US to freeze confrontation, at least for the dozen of weeks before the 3 Nov US presidential election. The reformist atmosphere across the Pacific will probably cancel populist political support effects for anyone trying to launch military actions abroad, as well as accelerating China’s reform progresses in these very trying, utterly unprogressive times.

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EJI contributor