Trump needs to stand up to China, despite our confrontation with North Korea

North Korea makes the unproven claim that it can hit any place in the continental United States with a missile topped with a nuclear warhead, but America’s long-term preeminent strategic concern should continue to be the People’s Republic of China.

While President Trump remains fixated on North Korea, his own security team and other military experts continue to warn about the Chinese threat to the United States.

At the Reagan National Defense Forum held Dec. 3, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster – President Trump’s national security adviser –warned attendees that China shares responsibility along with North Korea for subverting the post-World War II political, economic and security order to enrich itself and weaken the United States and our allies.

In addition, Robert Work, who was the deputy defense secretary until shortly after President Trump took office, cited the Chinese threat during the U.S. Naval Institute Washington Defense Forum the next day, with a useful summary of Chinese behavior. “They are confronting us,” he said.

The threat of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is made much of these days. But despite its renewed military prowess, Russia still lacks the financial underpinnings, global reach and strategic patience to threaten the United States on the overall world stage. The only nation capable of doing that is China – and it has all intentions of doing so.

Yet in November, President Trump traveled to China to be courted in Beijing, just as he continued to ramp up his rhetoric against North Korea and its manic missile and nuclear testing.

At the same time, three American aircraft carriers and their accompanying armadas of warships converged off the Korean Peninsula for a once-in-a-decade combined set of drills in the Pacific. The drills functioned in part as a demonstration of American force and resolve.

Aboard one of the carriers, the USS Nimitz out in the Sea of Japan, there was no doubt about where the threats were. With F-18s jets circling the ship, Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, commander of Carrier Strike Group 11, warned about “a real Russia to the north, China to the south and North Korea to the west.”

But let’s face it, Russia has remained almost completely silent in that part of the world, and the only trump card the destitute North Korean government has is its missile and nuclear program.

Despite its verbal bluster, North Korea has yet to prove it can loft a single nuclear warhead atop a missile capable of reaching the continental U.S. Beyond its still-fledgling intercontinental ballistic missile capability and its infamous cyberhackers, North Korea really has nothing else in its holster. The hermit kingdom is, at most, a two-trick pony that, if allowed to run, would soon pull up lame.

China, meanwhile, has developed and deployed a massive array of ground- and sea-based missiles that can reach U.S. shores. And it doesn’t even have to rely on those missiles to square off against regional U.S. forces. Its naval force is already a near-match for America’s in the Western Pacific, and it’s growing stronger.

To establish control over vital trade lanes and maritime resources, the Chinese have built military outposts on remote islands in the South China Sea and created new artificial island forts where they need them. The Chinese often bully their way into territories claimed by other countries and use maritime might to thwart opposing forces – even, at times, those of America.

China wants to exert the same kind of control in the South China Sea, East China Sea and other regional waters that the U.S. does in the Caribbean. If China can accomplish that, it will be able to control some of the world’s most lucrative trade routes, including those vital to the U.S. economy.

By staking so much personal and political capital on getting North Korea to back down, President Trump and his administration are losing sight of the region’s apex predator, China. And China is taking advantage of America’s distraction to close the worldwide supremacy gap.

Global publicity of Chinese behavior had prompted Beijing in recent years to agree to follow some basic rules of the road when encountering other nations’ maritime forces. But when North Korea attracted the spotlight earlier this year, a Chinese armada of navy frigates, coast guard vessels, fishing boats and naval helicopters invaded the South China Sea waters and skies around Thitu Island. The island is a 92-acre plot of land occupied by the Philippines and lying about 12 nautical miles away from Subi Reef, one of the artificially created Chinese outposts.

In the nearby Paracels, China dredged a new harbor and added about 25 acres of additional “land” to its artificial military garrison, along with a new helipad, wind turbines and two photovoltaic solar arrays.

China has reasserted itself against the U.S., harassing American reconnaissance aircraft patrolling the skies that Beijing declares to be Chinese airspace. China has also launched its second aircraft carrier –the first built in China.

While the Chinese carrier and its supporting ships are no match for the seasoned American carrier groups patrolling the Pacific, the impressive new vessel gives China even more prestige relative to the paltry fleets of its neighbors.

With the new warships it’s bringing into service, China will continue to expand its reach and control of the South China Sea, the main transportation route for about 80 percent of the world’s trade, or more than $3 trillion annually.

And the sad irony? Despite China’s revived aggressive behavior, some Asian countries –including longtime U.S. ally South Korea – are starting to see China as a stabilizing force because of the aggressive rhetoric coming of the Trump White House. In a bizarre geopolitical twist, Chinese President Xi Jinping is viewed by many as a voice of calm in the region.

For decades, many countries in the Western and Southern Pacific had shifted back and forth in the friendship they showed the two superpowers, coming to China for trade and to the U.S. for security. But now these smaller nations are beginning to wonder whether America is worth the wooing. That’s especially true when President Trump seems willing to kowtow to China for any kind of help against North Korea.

It’s time for President Trump to win back America’s old allies by paying less attention to the fickle moves of the North Koreans and by showing a renewed commitment to being a force for fairness and accountability in the region, particularly as it concerns Chinese encroachment.

If America looks away for too long, the Chinese will seize what they covet.