US launches ‘all-front’ offensive against China

US warships in the South China Sea

By Jude Woodward

In the course of 2018 the US launched an offensive against China on multiple fronts. After Trump had spent much of 2017 flattering Xi Jinping and ‘thanking’ China for its help on North Korea, in 2018 the tone coming from the US abruptly harshened, and increasingly hostile acts – on both the trade and military fronts – have been taken or threatened.

Vice President Mike Pence spelt out the rationale for this sharp turn in a seminal speech at the Hudson Institute on 4th October setting out the administration’s policy towards China. The speech brought together every preceding critique of China whether for its alleged damage to US national interests or its failure to meet Western norms on ‘democracy’ and human rights. Pence spun through China’s alleged crimes on trade, intellectual property, security, cyber attacks, the South China Sea, military spending, ‘debt diplomacy’, support for the ‘wrong’ regimes (e.g. Venezuela) and so on. And he threw in some new ones, particularly the claim that: ‘China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections…’[1]

The speech was a major statement of current US policy towards China, and signalled that the aggressive steps towards China that have characterised US actions this year are not a temporary blip to apply pressure on this or that issue, but that competition not cooperation is the strategic direction of US thinking on China for the long term.

‘America had hoped that economic liberalization would bring China into greater partnership with us and with the world. Instead, China has chosen economic aggression, which has in turn emboldened its growing military’, he argued, and that while ‘…previous administrations all but ignored China’s actions – and in many cases… abetted them…those days are over.’ Spelling out that the aim is ‘to reset America’s economic and strategic relationship with China…to finally put America first’.

Many commentators pointed to parallels between Pence’s speech and Winston Churchill’s 1946 Iron Curtain speech in 1946, which announced the Cold War. In China there was especial concern with Pence’s suggestion that there is a growing consensus in both the Republican and Democratic parties on adopting a more confrontational approach to China. Certainly Nancy Pelosi, likely to continue to serve as leader of the House Democrats after the midterms, is a noted hard-line China hawk, who has supported Trump’s tariff war for example. This implies that this new aggressive stance could outlast a Trump presidency, and what is opening is a new era of Cold (and even possibly hot) War between the West led by the US and China.

National Defence Strategy – China not ‘terrorism’ now US primary concern

Pence centrally referred to the major reformulation of the priorities in US foreign policy that was set out in the US Defence Department’s new National Defence Strategy published in January. Titled ‘Sharpening the American military’s competitive edge’ it bluntly placed ‘strategic competition’ with key rivals, i.e. China, ahead of the previous priority to the so-called ‘war on terror’. ‘Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security’, it says. [2]

The Defence Strategy document clarifies precisely what this means: ‘The central challenge to US prosperity and security is the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers’. And in case the message has not fully got through: ‘Long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities for the Department, and require both increased and sustained investment, because of the magnitude of the threats they pose to US security and prosperity today, and the potential for those threats to increase in the future.’

It concludes that the US has to ‘build a more lethal force’, with the capacity to fight and win a war with any enemy. The detailed defence procurement proposals to achieve this are set out in the full strategy document, which is classified. But apparently these precise proposals were developed through giving detailed consideration to which military programmes would be essential, and which would not, if the US were to be able to win in an all-out war with China and/or Russia.

In line with this, in the summer the new defence budget was finally agreed on the basis of a bipartisan vote in Congress that increased US defence spending to $718bn in the coming year, an increase of 13% in one year. This compares to China’s defence budget in 2017 of $228bn.[3]

Nuclear weapons and withdrawal from the INF

Part of this budget is allocated to updating and improving the US nuclear arsenal. In October Trump announced that he intended to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). This treaty was signed between Gorbachev and Reagan and resulted in the removal of Cruise missiles and Soviet SS-20 missiles from sites in Europe and Western Russia, and a commitment by both sides not to develop or deploy land-based intermediate and short-range missiles.

Trump’s withdrawal from the INF is widely seen as mainly targeted at China, which was exempt from the Treaty and so has been able to develop short and intermediate range missiles as the heart of its Eastern and Southern defences. While the US does have sea and air based intermediate range missiles in the region, as these are not permanently stationed they do not present a real capability to defeat China, and would rely on US allies allowing ‘transit rights’ to get missile laden aircraft into combat position.

Commentators consider that the US would like to develop new intermediate range missiles and permanently base these in Guam, Japan or even South Korea. This would strengthen the US’s military position to attack China and potentially force China into an economically damaging arms race. However it would also dramatically increase the military tensions in the region and create major political divisions in Japan and/or South Korea if they were asked to host such US missiles.

Nonetheless, creating the military capacity to ‘win’ a war against China on its home territory is clearly the goal of the Defence Department, one aim of the hike in US defence spending and a strong motivator for the decision to leave the INF.

Militarisation of China’s seas

In advance of any substantive steps to change the military relationship of forces with China in the region, the US has been behaving more aggressively in the South China Sea and the Straits of Taiwan. Using the feeble excuse of defending ‘freedom of navigation’ – which has never been threatened by China which urgently needs free navigation through international waters to conduct its vast international trade – flotillas of US warships have sailed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese islands in the South China Sea.

In 2017 Trump suspended these so-called Freedom of Navigation operations when he was pursuing a softer policy towards China, but since late last year they were reinstated and on a more frequent basis than under Obama. In mid-2018 France and the UK announced that they intended to join the US FONOP operations. Australia is already a participant in this US-instigated militarisation of the South China Sea.

In July this year the US stepped up its aggressive military stance by sending US warships through the Straits of Taiwan, again on the trumped up grounds of defending free navigation. China has never objected to the passage of any commercial shipping through the Straits, but it does object to hostile navies sending warships so close to Chinese home shores. The only ‘freedom of navigation’ this defends is the right of the US to send its Navy right up to China’s coasts; a freedom that the US would hardly accept around its shores.

All these military steps are directed to two goals. Firstly to change the military balance in the region to make it possible for the US to wage an offensive war against China, which the present state of China’s defences compared to the US presence in the region makes very difficult if not impossible with any hope of success. And secondly to force the Chinese to divert economic resources into a damaging arms race that would reduce its competitivity internationally, and with the US in particular. The US hopes this would eventually create a domestic economic squeeze that would undermine support for the regime and provoke popular feeling in favour of caving in to the US based on the illusion that the US would then ‘allow’ China to develop again. Not only is this an illusion, as the US’s chief aim is that China’s growth should be slowed or halted so that it can present no challenge to the US, but, fortunately, China is showing no sign of falling into an ‘arms race’ trap.

Trade wars

However the US’s offensive against China this year has been most concentrated on seeking to apply pressure on its trade. This has correctly commanded most international attention. This has involved Trump’s escalating imposition of up to 25% tariffs on over $250bn worth of Chinese imports into the US. At present there is no sign of the US backing off on this tariff war, despite its negative effect on world trade and boomerang impact on the US economy in pushing up prices and pushing down stocks and shares. Nor has China shown any signs of giving in – although it has offered reasonable concessions and compromises which have been turned down.

So far Trump’s rhetoric has remained bullish; with exaggerated claims that the tariff war is already damaging China and the US is ‘winning’. But this does not hold up against the pressure on the US itself, which is set to worsen. So far the impact on the US economy has been muted by the fact the imposition of tariffs has coincided with the upswing of the business cycle, a happy circumstance that is unlikely to last long into next year. Moreover, Trump was always unlikely to change course before the midterms for political reasons.

Thus it remains possible that Trump will retreat from the tariff war at some point if the problems it creates domestically begin to outweigh its value in putting pressure on China. But the US economic offensive does not just take the form of a tariff war.

ZTE and attacks on Chinese companies

The imposition of the first tranche of tariffs in April was preceded by an unprecedented US attack on ZTE, one of the top Chinese telecoms’ companies. The company was found to have broken a previous agreement with the US on trade with Iran, a stupid step that was bound to provoke a response from the US. But the level of sanction that the US imposed in punishment – prohibiting ZTE from using US parts or technology for seven years – threatened to completely destroy the company.

After intense negotiations and the departure of the entire management team at ZTE, China managed to get the sanction lifted in July. But not only had the company itself been seriously damaged, possibly fatally, but the confrontation had been an object lesson in how the US’s lead in major technologies gives it huge international leverage, even as its growth rates falter and it runs major trade deficits with key competitors.

US vs China: a new Cold War?

If this shift to all-front aggressive campaign against China is carried through by the Trump administration it will mark a fundamental change in the US’s China policy towards China for the last 20 years or more.

After the tensions of the late 80s and the US sanctions on China following the events of 1989, from Bill Clinton’s administration in the mid-90s onwards, the various incumbents of the White House sought to maintain relatively neutral relations with China. Trade ties were increased, China was brought into the World Trade Organisation, US investment contributed to China’s economic modernisation, and many major US companies shifted their production to China. At the same time the US used its influence to urge China to keep out of the disputes that increasingly wracked the UN Security Council and NATO as the US launched its ‘war on terror’. To maintain this position the US was prepared to meet China halfway on issues of most strategic concern to it – the status of Taiwan in particular.

Already under Obama there was strong pressure from within the US foreign policy and security establishment to toughen up the US’s stance as China grew in economic strength and it began to pose a perceived threat to the US’s pre-eminent position in East and Southeast Asia – hence Obama and Hillary Clinton’s launch of the so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ in 2010. But with the US still mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the challenges and opportunities for US interests presented by the ‘Arab spring’ and the civil war in Ukraine, Obama was never really able to fully follow through on the realignment of priorities that the ‘pivot’ envisaged.

There are still many similar issues confronting Trump before an all-front anti-China policy can be implemented. The US is far from out of the Middle East and Trump has stepped up US involvement in Yemen. The US is also extensively engaged in many unstable African states. Despite Trump’s own preference for a détente with Putin’s Russia, this has not been delivered against opposition within his administration and the Pentagon. Army chief-of-staffs warn that the US military remains over-extended globally and even the large budget hike cannot allow it to upscale sufficiently to believably challenge China and force it to respond without full-blown retreats elsewhere.

But, even if obstacles remain to the launch of a full-blooded Cold War with China, there is now no equivocation that this is the intent of major sections of the current administration and is at the heart of Pentagon strategising. The recently retired Commander of US forces in Europe, Lt Gen Ben Hodges, told the Warsaw Security Forum in October, that he thought ‘it is a very strong likelihood that we will be at war with China’ within 15 years.[4] This is not just dangerous thinking for China, but for the whole world. No one should be in any doubt that if the US launched a war or generalised aggression towards China that this could be confined to a ‘Pacific theatre’; it would present a threat to the whole world.

This proposed ‘all-front’ offensive against China should be unequivocally opposed in all its aspects: it is unjustified; it is deeply dangerous; its only goal is maintaining US preeminence globally. The Chinese people have the right to live in peace and develop their economy without the malign interference of the US.

This article first appeared on the blog New Cold War,

[1] Vice President Pence’s remarks on the administration’s policy towards China, Hudson Institute, Washington DC, 4th October, 2018.

[2] Summary of the 2018 National Defence Strategy of the USA, ‘Sharpening the American military’s competitive edge’, January 2018.

[3] Figures from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, constant 2016 dollars. China’s defence spending has been rising by about 10% a year, meaning its likely spending in 2019, when the US will spend $718bn, will be around $275bn

[4] V. Gera, ‘Retired US General says war with China likely in 15 years’, Associated Press, 24 October 2018,