Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore

Is Trump heading for war with China? Sean Ledwith takes a look

The anger and dread many people feel about the notion of Donald Trump occupying the Oval Office will not have been abated by events in the South China Sea since his inauguration. A few days ago the US Navy deployed an aircraft carrier and guided missile destroyer to the area which has become the key fault-line in relations between the two pre-eminent global superpowers. The US action commenced just as the Chinese had completed their own naval manoeuvres in the area. The potential for a cataclysmic accident was demonstrated earlier this month when patrol aircraft from the two states inadvertently flew within 1000 feet of each other. Trump’s Defense Secretary, James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis has recently underlined the administration’s alarming commitment to aggressively challenging Chinese hegemony of the region, despite the legal inconvenience that Washington has no territorial claim there whatever:

Freedom of navigation is absolute, and whether it be commercial shipping or our U.S. Navy, we will practice in international waters and transit international waters as appropriate.

 The Chinese have not been slow to respond to the potential threat the new occupant of the White House represents to their regional interests. Last month a senior military official in Beijing commented:

A war within the president’s term or war breaking out tonight are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality.

The current tension comes on top of the inflammatory anti-Chinese rhetoric that characterised Trump’s 2016 election campaign. In one of the televised Presidential debates, Trump asserted his ridiculous claim that climate change is a hoax concocted by Beijing and that the Asian superpower is a currency manipulator responsible for the loss of thousands of US jobs:

Look at what China is doing to our country…. They are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China.

Earlier in the campaign, Trump had stooped even lower, putting on a crass Chinese accent with broken English and mocking Asian business styles: They say, ‘We want deal!’ 

 After winning the November election, the President-elect nominated to his cabinet a number of figures who conspicuously favour a ratcheting-up of the US challenge to China. Trump’s pick as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, told the Senate during his confirmation hearings that he felt the time had come to adopt a more hawkish line with Beijing. Tillerson claimed China’s attitude to the region was comparable to the Russian take-over of Crimea and that the US would consider blockading the South China Sea to prevent further Chinese influence (a move that would be tantamount to a declaration of war): 

We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed. 

Tillerson’s sabre-rattling prompted a Chinese official to respond such a move could only be enforced by a large-scale war and to warn the incoming Secretary of State that he

had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories.

Bannon’s war?

Trump’s most controversial appointment, and potentially most disastrous –has been alt-right guru Steve Brannon’s accession to the National Security Council. Brannon represents a throwback to the delusional neo-con coterie that guided George Bush Jnr into the calamitous invasion of Iraq in 2003. Like his predecessors, Bannon sees the world as divided into two irreconcilable ideological camps that are destined to cross swords. Last year, he stated that war with China was inevitable sometime in the near future:

You have an expansionist Islam and you have an expansionist China. Right? They are motivated. They’re arrogant. They’re on the march. And they think the Judeo-Christian west is on the retreat.

The peril of having a person like this whispering in the ear of a President, whose grasp of policy is shaky to put it mildly, is difficult to overstate. Bannon’s Svengali-like reputation has not been helped by the apparent fact that Trump promoted him to the NSC without realising and that Bannon surreptitiously devised the appropriate executive knowing Trump would not bother reading it!

Indispensable link

The roots of the crisis lie in the strategic value of the South China Sea not only to the two superpowers but also to lesser regional players who have a stake in the area. An estimated $5 trillion of annual shipping trade passes through the Sea, making it an indispensable link for China with Middle Eastern and Western markets. The area is also the site of extensive oil and gas reserves that both powers know will be crucial in the inevitable energy rivalries of the 21st century. To consolidate its control of the area, China has been undergoing an extraordinary programme over the past two years of converting sandbars into artificial airfields, harbours and other military facilities. Last year, a UN tribunal ruled against China’s territorial claim.

The Spratly islands have become a particular focus of this ‘island-building’ policy and have sparked rival territorial claims from Vietnam and the Philippines-countries that alongside Australia and Japan have emerged as parts of a potential US-led hostile coalition encircling China.

Air Sea Battle

Last year, radical filmmaker John Pilger’s documentary Coming War with China drew attention to how the US and its allies have encircled China with 400 military bases in the Pacific and across Eurasia. Pilger also explained how US military planners have developed advanced contingencies for a showdown with China, known as Air-Sea Battle, which is posited on the type of blockade of the South China Sea envisioned by Tillerson, alongside pre-emptive attacks on Chinese inland missile defences. The revival of this type of mentality in the corridors of US power is disturbingly reminiscent of the Reagan era when senior politicians and generals would casually discuss the possibility of a winnable nuclear war.


Apart from the recent deployment of the USS Carl Vinson and its support vessels to the South China Sea, Trump also antagonised the Chinese by his decision to take a phone call from the Taiwanese Premier last December. This amounted to a rejection of the One China policy that previous Presidents have accepted since Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China in the 1970s and which is based on a tacit acceptance of Beijing’s historic claim to Taiwan. One of Obama’s NSC team noted the ominous implications of Trump’s apparent brinkmanship:

Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.

Tension in South East Asia will only be made even more precarious by the apparent assassination of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of the North Korean leader, in surreal circumstances at Kuala Lumpur airport this month. China has long been Pyongyang’s regional protector but the US no doubt will use the episode as a pretext to pile pressure on Beijing to curtail its rogue ally.


However, it is important to note Trump’s apparent brinkmanship actually represents continuity, rather than a break, with Obama’s policy towards China. It was under the latter that the pivot of US global strategy was shifted to the Pacific and supposedly away from the Middle East, with a stated goal of relocating 60% of military power onto China’s doorstep. The intensification of regional belligerence charted by John Pilger was unequivocally backed by Obama. Trump’s undoubtedly represents a change of tone in the conduct of US imperial power but the structural factors that lead one state capitalist leviathan to warily confront another are ultimately decisive. As a rising imperialist power, China has its own economic agenda for asserting hegemony in the South China Sea. The country’s foreign exchange reserves remain huge at $ 3 trillion but last December fell to their lowest point since 2011 amid ongoing concern about the sustainability of its property bubble. President Xi Jinping also faces a crucial political shake-up in the Communist Party later this year and cannot afford to be seen to back down in the face of Trump’s provocation.


The US elite is currently torn between Trump and his acolytes who perceive China as the supreme foreign policy challenge of this century, and powerful elements in the military-industrial complex, and its allies in Congress, who would rather continue the Cold War confrontation with Russia. The latter are probably responsible for the shambolic resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first choice as National Security Advisor, with leaked allegations that he was too close to the Putin regime. As the factions jostle for dominance at the top of the US apparatus, the imperative to build a movement from below to unseat Trump becomes even more important. War between the two Pacific giants remains unlikely due to their symbiotic relationship within the global capitalist economy, but it is equally unlikely Trump will serve a full term without taking the world to the brink. 

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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