Trump's "up and down" relationship with China may be on the precipice of taking a sharp dive into the proverbial abyss. After frequently threatening to label China a "currency manipulator" on the campaign trail last year, Trump's relationship with China's President Xi Jinping took a decided turn for the better after a meeting at Mar-a-Lago in which China vowed to help address the "menace of North Korea" .
I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2017
Had a very good call last night with the President of China concerning the menace of North Korea.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2017
Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 16, 2017
But apparently those efforts have officially failed:
While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2017
And, shortly after those efforts were declared dead, the Trump administration signed a $1.3 billion arms deal with Taiwan, a deal which China has "demanded" be cancelled immediately.
Meanwhile, as the Financial Times points out today, in the midst of all the international crises, China has made great strides building out and further militarizing their disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Over the past three months, China has built four new missile shelters on Fiery Cross, boosting the number of installations on the reef to 12, according to satellite images provided to the Financial Times by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
China has also expanded radar facilities on Fiery Cross and two other disputed reefs — Subi and Mischief — in the Spratly Island chain, and started building underground structures that Greg Poling, director of CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, assesses will be used to store munitions.
“We haven’t seen any slowdown in construction, including since the Mar-a-Lago summit,” said Mr Poling. “The islands are built and they are clearly militarised, which means they already got over the hard part. Now every time they put in a new radar or new missile shelter, it is harder for the world to get angry. They are building a gun, they are just not putting the bullets in yet.”
The advances underscore how much progress China has made towards militarizing the man-made islands in ways that significantly enhance its ability to both monitor activity in the South China Sea and to project power in the western Pacific where the US has been the dominant power in the seven decades since the second world war.
Euan Graham, an Asia expert at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said it was “not quite game over in the South China Sea” but that China had fundamentally altered the status quo over the islands that would be hard to change barring war or natural disasters.
“They already exert a strategic effect by projecting China’s presence much further out,” said Mr Graham. “They will not prevent the US Navy from operating in their vicinity, but they will complicate the threat environment for US ships and aircraft — by extending the [Chinese navy’s] surveillance and targeting net, as well as the envelope of power projection.”
Of course, these latest provocations come despite a promise made to Obama in 2015 that "China would not militarize the man-made islands"...a promise which the Obama administration apparently took at face value and proceeded to bury their heads in the sand.
During a visit to Washington, Mr Xi told Barack Obama in 2015 that China would not militarise the man-made islands, but in the intervening 20 months Beijing has stepped up construction, and now has runways that can accommodate Chinese fighter jets.
China’s legal claim to the seas around the maritime features is legally controversial since many were dredged out of coral and sand and thus not entitled to status as islands. But Vasily Kashin, an expert on the Chinese military at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said the goal was never legal sovereignty but to give China forward bases from which it could patrol and exercise control in their vicinity.
“If you have this infrastructure in the Spratlys, it allows China to constantly monitor aircraft and ships in the South China Sea. The point is that no one will be able to do anything in the area without them seeing.”
Ely Ratner, an Asia expert who served in the Obama administration, said Washington had failed to craft a strategy to convince China to halt militarisation of the man-made islands. “Until China believes that there will be significant costs . . . I don’t think they have any reason to slow down,” said Mr Ratner. “They have been pushing on an open door and have been surprised at how little resistance they have faced.”
Critics say the Obama administration took too cautious an approach to avoid creating tensions that would hurt the ability for co-operation on other issues. Meanwhile, some experts say the Trump team has given China a relatively free pass to maximise the chances it will boost pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear programme.
Somehow we suspect the Trump administration will end up being slightly less "accommodating" over the long term...