Nobody likes a bully. But almost no one tells a bully that to his or her face. Because bullying works. Sometimes.
Diplomacy was invented to contain bullying and worse violence, but when things get hot, preventing or containing violence gets all the attention and bullies often escape even diplomatic reproofs.
That’s what seems to have happened to the Trump Administration’s declared intention to tame Chinese bullying in the South China Sea and elsewhere. It got intentionally forgotten in favor of courting China to help tamp down the potential threat of North Korean violence.
Which probably makes sense.
But it does leave un-addressed, Chinese bullying run amok, from land claiming and military mini-base building in the South China Sea to its high-pressure tactics trying to force every government on earth to cut Taiwan dead.
“Will America stand up to the Chinese bully?” seems to be a question every Asia leader, or at least every Asia-oriented pundit is asking.
Take, for example, what looks from the air like a case of measles on the face of the South China Sea. The new sores and blotches are really newly-built artificial islands, concrete, rebar and fill clapped over some undersea rock-bump. Connect the dots, and you sea the outline of vast new claims of Chinese sovereign territory.
More worrying, many of these built-to-purpose islands are weaponized, fitted for air fields, or air missile bases — should it ever come to that. A bully showing his muscle. And getting deference. At the latest meeting of the ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, all references to “land reclamation and militarization” were scrubbed for meeting records after lobbying from China.
That happened, some analysts say, because the ASEAN nations have no confidence that President Trump will deliver on his promises to be tougher on China.
But others suggest it happened because the artificial islands may not be worth fussing about, they are just a foolish bully blowing smoke, because the pock-marks of all those military positions may just be the map of a new version of the World War 1 Maginot Line, a set of known, fixed positions, that – if it came to that – would become easy bullseyes for 21st century smart weapons.
A much less theoretical problem is this one…what, if anything, should the US do to keep China from succeeding in its plan to bully the world out of relations with Taiwan, the runaway Chinese province that has achieved one of the freer, more democratic and successful societies in East Asia? Panama the latest.
Might Taiwan become another bargaining chip sacrificed to the need to hold down Kim Young Un and North Korea?
Keith Johnson is acting Deputy Managing Editor for news at Foreign Policy Magazine and .com. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.