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Joseph MicallefSeveral recent events underscore China’s growing military strength in East Asia and how it might respond to the Trump administration’s plans to “reset” U.S.-China relations.

On Dec. 14, satellite reconnaissance revealed that China had installed anti-aircraft guns on all seven of the artificial islands it has created in the South China Sea.

That same day, the Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper often used as a vehicle by Beijing to float new policy ideas, published an editorial declaring it was time for China “to reformulate its Taiwan policy, make the use of force as a main option and carefully prepare for it.”

Beijing confirmed that it had constructed defences on the seven islands and that such steps were “legitimate and normal” to defend its territory.

Fox News claimed China would place mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) platforms on its new islands. This would represent the last defensive element before the actual deployment of Chinese military aircraft there.

In the Bohai Sea, China’s first operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, carried out its first live fire exercises. The exercise included the scrambling of Chinese Shenyang J-15 jets to attack targets with live ordinance while the carrier ran defence drills.

Both exercises came amidst a marked deterioration of U.S.-China relations, following the decision of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump to accept a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 2.

Both military events were in the planning phase for months (as for that matter was the call from Tsai) and their occurrence had nothing to do with the Tsai-Trump phone exchange. China’s willingness to confirm and publicize both military events, however, was likely triggered by that call.

Further aggravating U.S.-China relations, in what was widely interpreted as a deliberate provocation of the incoming Trump administration, was the seizure of an American underwater drone by a Chinese naval vessel. The unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) was being employed by the USNS Bowditch, a U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship. The ship was operating in international waters about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook issued a statement calling for “China to return our UUV immediately” and disclosed that Washington had filed a “demarche,” a formal diplomatic protest with Beijing. The seizure of a U.S. Navy drone by a Chinese warship would only have come on the direct orders of the highest levels of the Chinese government.

Trump denounced the seizure, describing it as a theft of U.S. Navy property and calling it an “unprecedented act.” China’s Defence Ministry has since announced that the drone would be returned and criticized Washington for having “hyped up” the incident.

The Obama administration had, until recently, been reluctant to challenge Chinese island-building activity in the South China Sea. Lately, however, it has stepped up “freedom of navigation” operations in the area: sailing military vessels through disputed waters in a symbolic rejection of Chinese sovereignty claims.

These operations, denounced by Beijing, serve little purpose beyond their diplomatic symbolism. They have had no impact on China’s island building or on the militarization of those islands.

The live fire exercise in the Bohai Sea may produce dramatic video footage but it is less significant. Live fire exercises are a normal aspect of military training. It is hardly a surprise that the Liaoning would eventually participate in such exercises.

By 2020, China will have a carrier fleet second in size only to that of the U.S. Navy. China’s navy, however, has a long way to go before it can project naval air power. It also lacks the complement of naval vessels required to constitute a carrier task force. By comparison, the U.S. Navy operates 10 carrier task forces.

The Global Times editorial suggesting the use of force to unify Taiwan with the mainland is empty rhetoric. China lacks the ability to seize and hold the air and sea battle space that such an invasion would require. Moreover, the Chinese Navy lacks the amphibious capability that such an invasion would entail. Taiwan has a smaller but formidable military force, and could rely on significant help from Washington.

The militarization of China’s newly-built islands in the South China Sea is an issue that the incoming Trump administration may choose to address more forcefully. The islands are quite small and lack the ability to store any significant quantity of fuel or munitions.

A recent RAND Corp. study concluded that the islands were vulnerable to American precision-guided munitions and that the presence of military jets and SAMs on the islands would not alter the balance of power between U.S. and Chinese forces in the region.

Beijing has made it clear, however, that it intends to push out its defensive perimeter as far as it can. Doing so will entail political, diplomatic and, possibly, economic costs. At the very least, it will prompt more aggressive arms buildups among China’s neighbours, renewed calls for closer security arrangements with the United States, and possibly even the offering of military bases for U.S. forces.

The questions that Beijing must answer are: will the prospect of enhanced Chinese trade and investment be sufficient to neutralize that response and, if not, then what costs is it willing to pay to militarize the South and East China Seas?

Under the Obama administration, those costs have been relatively light

The incoming Trump administration is signalling that it may up the ante. Exactly what those actions might entail, however, remains to be seen.

Beijing has a long history of provoking incoming administrations to see how they will respond to aggressive Chinese actions. The recent series of moves, and the willingness of Beijing to publicize them, suggest that China has already started to test the incoming Trump administration’s resolve.

At the very least, they imply that increased American support for Taiwan will spur a more aggressive Chinese policy in the South and East China Seas.

More provocations, from both sides, are probably on the way.

Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.

Joseph is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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