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Trade war

Trump and Congress up pressure on China with Asian-security law

American lawmakers seek united front on trade talks as March deadline looms

The just-signed law says it is U.S. policy to conduct regular freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea and other Indo-Pacific waters.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- A wide-ranging new Asian-security law to counter growing Chinese military power in the region is intended to keep the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration unified in maintaining pressure on the mainland amid ongoing trade talks.

President Donald Trump signed into law on Monday the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which seeks to bolster comprehensive American cooperation with Asian countries and includes measures that appear directed squarely at China.

Beijing's ascendance has stirred concerns over national security and economic leadership beyond the China hawks in the White House, reaching many members of Congress. The law also appears to be aimed at keeping Congress and the administration on the same page in trade talks with Beijing, which have a deadline of March 1 to reach a conclusion.

The act outlines the advancement of an Indo-Pacific diplomatic strategy toward upholding the rules-based economic order as well as human rights and international legal standards.

U.S. armed forces are to conduct regular operations geared toward maintaining freedom of navigation in areas like the South China Sea, where Beijing is expanding its military presence. The law also authorizes the provision of $1.5 billion in military and economic support to Asia over half a decade, particularly for improving maritime security and military training among Southeast Asian countries.

The act expresses support for efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to craft a code of conduct with China for avoiding conflict in the South China Sea and upholding ASEAN's maritime interests. Congress likely wishes to caution against letting China steer that code's creation.

The new legislation addresses the allegations of industrial espionage and cybercrime by China as well, saying the president should "strengthen the enforcement of United States intellectual property laws as a top priority, including taking all appropriate action to deter and punish" infractions.

It elevates "defense trade and technology cooperation between the United States and India to a level commensurate with the closest allies and partners" of the U.S.

The law also says the president should carry out "regular transfers of defense articles to Taiwan that are tailored to meet the existing and likely future threats from the People's Republic of China." It also looks to advance visits to Taiwan by high-level U.S. officials, in line with a law encouraging the same that was enacted in March 2018.

This point in particular was criticized by Beijing.

The Taiwan question is China's internal affair and allows no external interference, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a message clearly pointed at Washington.

Xi said in his speech Wednesday that Beijing makes "no promise to renounce the use of force" and reserves "the option of taking all necessary means" toward external forces as well as "Taiwan independence" separatists, he said.

That message was "primarily aimed at the U.S. and Taiwan voters," said the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. The speech hardened Beijing's "redline against any actions -- either by Taipei or Washington -- that would promote formal independence from China," the group said.

That same day, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lu Kang said Beijing had lodged "solemn representations" with Washington over the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. The law "bluntly interfered in China's domestic affairs" and "seriously violated the 'One China' principle," Lu said, referring to the view that both the mainland and Taiwan belong to "one China."

In the U.S., Congress also appears to be using the law in part to send Trump a warning, given concerns that he might seek compromise with China at some point, said a congressional source. Trump's propensity for making unilateral decisions that conflict with other government efforts was illustrated by his recent sudden move to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.

Late last month, Trump wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with Xi by telephone and there was "big progress being made" on trade negotiations. But a number of people affiliated with the matter said the president was exaggerating that progress, U.S. media reported. Some have speculated that Trump was softening his anti-China stance due to concerns over falling stock prices.

Congress has passed legislation to constrain Trump's diplomatic actions before. In summer 2017, the lawmakers imposed tougher sanctions on Russia over Moscow's apparent interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and also set a requirement for congressional approval to lighten or remove the punitive measures.

A similar pattern may play out involving legislation to end American military support for Saudi Arabia -- which plays a large role in neighboring Yemen's bloody civil war -- over the October killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act was introduced in April 2018 under the sponsorship of a China-wary senator from Trump's Republican Party. Last month, it passed the Senate in a unanimous vote that included opposition Democrats and won approval by a heavy majority in the House of Representatives.

The bipartisan congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission wrote in November's annual review that "many aspects of China's attempts to seize leadership have undoubtedly put at risk the national security and economic interests" of the U.S.

The panel also warned that China's military would "likely be able to contest U.S. operations throughout the entire Indo-Pacific region" by 2035 or sooner and that China could gain access to personal and corporate data if it wins out in setting global standards for next-generation communications technology.

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