December 14, 2016 7:00 pm JST
China up close

Trump pushes the limits of Xi's patience

Can Beijing keep its cool as its military grows antsy?

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- China's Global Times newspaper has taken to bitterly denouncing U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in recent editorials.

The paper, run by the Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, on Monday said Trump has a naive notion that the longstanding "one China" policy can be used as a commercial "bargaining chip." The paper added that the president-elect needs to "learn to handle foreign affairs modestly" and warned that Beijing "may not prioritize peaceful reunification [with Taiwan] over a military takeover."

The following day, the Global Times said that the Chinese government needs to consider a variety of stern measures to punish advocates of Taiwan's independence, and that a military takeover of the island is one option.

The Global Times is under the sway of hard-liners and is occasionally permitted to express opinions separate from official government positions. The editorials reflect sentiment inside the People's Liberation Army, according to sources close to the paper, who cited senior editorial staffers' ties to the PLA.

In any case, China sees Taiwan as a "core interest" and maintains it will not hesitate to use force to settle the matter.

Restrained response

"I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade," Trump told Fox News recently.

This came as a shock to Chinese President Xi Jinping, especially in light of Trump's telephone chat with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen -- a break with U.S.-China protocol. Portraying himself as a diplomatic outsider, the president-elect has quickly shaken international norms Beijing spent 40 years establishing.

On the surface, at least, China's reaction has been reserved. A foreign ministry spokesman said Beijing is paying close attention to press reports on the new U.S. leader's remarks and is strongly concerned about them, without referring to Trump by name.

Beijing has also kept a measured tone in reiterating the one-China policy.

As mentioned in an earlier column, China's restrained reaction can be traced to advice from former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who visited Beijing in early December and urged Xi to cooperate with Trump.

Xi would rather avoid an open confrontation before Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, but the Communist Party is getting antsy. The editorials in the Global Times can be taken as a sign of not only the PLA attitude but also a growing trend within the party.

In the meantime, Trump has thrown a curveball by appointing Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as ambassador to China. Branstad, 70, is a longtime friend of the Chinese president.

In 1985, when Xi was the party leader in the Hebei Province county of Zhengding, he visited the U.S. for the first time. The purpose of the trip was to observe agriculture in Iowa. There, he met the state's young governor, and the two struck up a friendship -- one they maintained as Xi neared the pinnacle of Chinese politics.

In 2012, when Xi visited the U.S. as vice president, he flew to Iowa to dine with Branstad.

Trump is showing himself to be a shrewd manager of personnel. Not only did he recognize that Xi's "old friend" would be warmly welcomed by China -- as indeed he was -- but Branstad may also help to increase farm exports to the country. China is a big market for corn and soybeans from Iowa.

The prevailing view in China is that Trump is trying a carrot-and-stick approach, with the appointment of Branstad and the chat with Tsai. But even the carrot part of the equation came with a bit of a lashing. Before he introduced Branstad as ambassador at a meeting in Iowa, Trump fired off some anti-China remarks reminiscent of his statements on the campaign trail.

Trump's "Trojan horse"

"China is responsible for almost half of America's trade deficit" and "is not a market economy," Trump declared. "They haven't played by the rules, and I know it's time that they're going to start."

Trump also criticized China for "massive theft of intellectual property, putting unfair taxes on our companies, not helping with the menace of North Korea like they should, and the at-will and massive devaluation of their currency and product dumping."

"Other than that, they've been wonderful, right?" he said.

This was not exactly a typical introduction for a new ambassador. Branstad appeared surprised, though all he could do was smile and shake hands with Trump.

The comments turned out to be a prelude to Trump's statement about one China. During the Fox News interview, he also slammed Beijing for building a huge military complex in the South China Sea.

So although the Xi administration is welcoming Branstad, it may eventually come to consider him Trump's "Trojan horse."

Amid the diplomatic games, the PLA is making its presence felt far beyond the pages of the Global Times.

Six PLA Air Force planes, including two Su-30 fighters and as many intelligence-gathering aircraft, flew over a strait separating the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako on the morning of December 10. The fleet then flew over an area south of Taiwan and the Bashi Channel.

The moves were an obvious attempt to test the reactions of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, Taiwan's military and U.S. forces.

If China is serious about attacking Taiwan, the best approach would be to seize control of the air and sea east of the island. Sending planes beyond the so-called "first island chain" and back into the Bashi Channel between southern Taiwan and the Philippines is a way to train for such a strategy.

Japan scrambled F-15 fighters in response to the Chinese maneuvers. Taiwanese fighters trailed the fleet.

A website that focuses on Chinese military activity subsequently leaked claims that the PLA jets had locked onto the Japanese fighters, which escaped by firing "jamming shells" -- decoys used to pull missiles off course.

Tokyo was also caught off guard when the Chinese Ministry of National Defense accused the Japanese fighters of dangerous "interference" during the encounter.

The leaks suggest the Chinese moves were initiated by the PLA. And while China is clearly concerned about the U.S. military and the transition to Trump, it evidently wants Japan to know it is wrapped up in the Taiwan issue, too.

Japan denied that its fighters conducted any close-range interference or launched jamming shells against the Chinese planes. The episode, however, clearly raised the tension level in the Japanese government.

Pressure on the president

At this point, the Xi administration remains composed about Trump, but the military's words and deeds show it has concluded the president-elect's break with protocol should not be overlooked.

The PLA has a certain amount of built-in authority, and for the sake of national security, the president is expected to accept the strategies it devises. The latest episode can be interpreted as PLA pressure on Xi.

Xi has already abandoned a key defense philosophy from the days of Deng Xiaoping: essentially, bide one's time quietly and wait for the right opportunity. Gone are the days when China devoted itself to economic growth while hiding its military muscle.

So when it comes to the "core interest" of Taiwan, China now feels obliged to show its readiness to use power, regardless of the effects this might have as Trump pursues his own Taiwan policy. And as the peer pressure grows, Xi seems to be running out of patience with his new U.S. counterpart.

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