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US’ tougher stance on the South China Sea is part of Trump’s re-election campaign

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US tougher stance on the south china sea isThe United States finally said what the world already knew: China’s claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis. It took four years after an international tribunal ruled on the issue. This raises the question why, with only six months left in the current administration, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made this declaration now?

Two reasons stand out – US President Donald Trump campaign’s attempt to bolster its tough-on-China credibility ahead of the upcoming presidential election, and galvanising the growing regional distrust of China to reassert the US as a regional power. If Beijing misreads either of these powerful political forces and provokes a confrontation, its geopolitical overreach will face a backlash that has long been brewing in the region.

With US election season in full swing, Trump attack ads air daily in battleground states with hundreds of millions of dollars in play. The campaign has decided to use China as one of several lines of attack against Trump’s opponent Joe Biden. It’s going to be a tough sell.

Pompeo’s highlighting of the South China Sea dispute gives the administration another China talking point. It comes after imposing extensive tariffs, sanctions on Communist Party members involved in the imprisonment of Uygurs in what are widely considered concentration camps, a crackdown on Chinese students with military ties studying in the US and sanctions over Beijing’s new security law for Hong Kong.

Attacking Biden over being soft on China and somehow putting the country at risk is part of a broader law and order theme, replete with fearmongering over what a Biden presidency might mean for the average American. The messaging is relentless and, so far, completely unconvincing.

While Trump calls Biden weak on China and blames Beijing for a host of US ills, it was Trump who signed a “phase one” trade deal that’s done little to help US manufacturers. His tariffs are mostly being paid by American companies and hitting their profits. Meanwhile, he and his daughter Ivanka received potentially lucrative trademarks in China.

According to former national security adviser John Bolton, Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win this year’s election by having China boost imports from agriculturally dependent US states. The counter-attack ads write themselves.

Even with the facts plain to see, a tumultuous campaign season means Trump is even more likely to amp up the pressure on China while looking for some easy, chest-thumping wins. Any conflict in the South China Sea – a boat ramming, for example – will play directly into Trump’s rhetoric.

That is a distinct possibility as Xi flexes his own foreign policy muscle. His diplomats have taken to social media in a “wolf warrior” war of words that increasingly imitates Trump’s dangerously cavalier commentary.

China might mistake US political turmoil as weakness and see an opportune time to more aggressively assert its naval claims over energy and fishery resources. Even more erroneously, it might think that were Trump to lose, a Biden presidency would take a different, less confrontational approach.

However, Biden, too, is projecting a tough-on-China stance in his campaign, though that issue is minor compared to the social and economic ills he aims to fix if elected.

A cornered Trump is still a dangerous Trump. Incentives for him to fight back harder in an attempt to win political points for a faltering campaign may be nearly impossible to ignore. A conflict with China, no matter how minor, could be just the muscle-flexing he decides he needs to rally his base and try to win over undecided voters. From now until November, more diplomatic, economic and political provocations cannot be discounted.

Trump’s efforts are part of a growing movement throughout Asia to counter China’s aggressive actions. India plans to invite Australia to join naval drills to expand its reach in the broader Indo-Pacific region. The US and Australia sent warships when a Chinese survey ship, escorted by Chinese coastguard vessels, entered Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone. Vietnam and the Philippines voiced their concerns over Chinese naval drills at a recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathering.

This diplomatic dance will continue as long as the music keeps playing. Pompeo’s announcement was weak on specific actions the administration would take with its new-found certainty. For its part, Beijing has signalled a slightly conciliatory tone by sending a high-level message through Foreign Minister Wang Yi that cooperation, when possible, is preferred. Ratcheting down the bombast is the best countries can hope for at the moment.

What the world has come to realise, however, is that China’s expansionist plans have to be countered at some point. That backlash will build in part now that the US has finally got off the fence and publicly declared China’s South China Sea claims invalid.

How much the rest of the region will rally around the US is uncertain, at least for now. That’s a policy gap China shouldn’t try to exploit in these increasingly uncertain times.

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