Denver, CO,
04:31 PM

As China Flexes its Muscles, Cooler Heads Will Need to Prevail


Ved Nanda is Evans University Professor and director of the Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law. He has taught at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law since 1965. Nanda is past president of the World Jurist Association, former honorary vice president of the American Society of International Law and a member of the advisory council of the United States Institute of Human Rights.

U.S.-China relations got another jolt this month when a Chinese naval vessel snatched an American underwater drone, while a U.S. oceanographic service ship was already set to retrieve it.

The drone, which China seized in the South China Sea on Dec. 16, was finally returned last Tuesday after a formal diplomatic protest by the United States.

On Monday, a Chinese ministry of foreign Affairs spokesman told reporters in Beijing, “China firmly opposes the frequent appearance of U.S. military aircraft and vessels in waters facing China for close-in reconnaissance and military surveys.”

Although the Chinese justified the seizure to avoid potential hazard to navigation, it was clearly in violation of international maritime law.

Under the Law of the Sea Treaty, the drone, being a U.S. vessel, is under exclusive U.S. jurisdiction and thus has complete sovereign immunity. In addition, as it was in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (an area stretching 200 nautical miles from land, where the coastal state has mineral and fishing rights but which is otherwise free for navigation), the U.S. was entitled to exercise freedom of the high seas, and China had no right to interfere with the drone.

In a statement, the Pentagon appropriately reiterated the U.S. commitment “to fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea wherever international law allows.”

When the Chinese indicated they would return the drone, President-Elect Donald Trump said we should tell China we don’t want back the drone they had stolen. Earlier he had irked China by accepting a telephone call from the president of Taiwan, as a clear departure from the “One China” principle, which Washington has consistently followed ever since it recognized China.

The Chinese government claims sovereignty over Taiwan and considers it as a core of its relations with the U.S.

Subsequently, Trump said he could seek trade concessions from China by using Taiwan as leverage.

And on the campaign trail he had often criticized China for devaluing its currency, taking American jobs and causing huge trade imbalances, its military buildup and expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, and not taking a strong stand on North Korea’s nuclear weapons. He has threatened to impose 45 percent tariffs on Chinese imports.

As the U.S. abandons its participation in President Obama’s signature project, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), China will certainly fill the vacuum and set the trade agenda under its own rules and standards.

Tariffs are currently unbalanced between China and the U.S., and a negotiated compromise is indeed warranted.

For China, which exported approximately $482 billion in goods to the U.S. in 2015, America is a most important export market, and current tariffs for imports on Chinese goods are at 2.5 percent for agricultural products and 2.9 percent for non-agricultural products. On the other hand, China imported about $116 billion of U.S. goods last year, at a tariff rate of 9.7 percent for agricultural products and 5 percent for non-agricultural products.

It is a booming market for the U.S. farmers and businesses, as China’s burgeoning middle class prefers American goods. China is now also America’s largest creditor, and if it dumped U.S. treasuries, the U.S. economy would suffer. But China also cannot find another country with the stability that the U.S. offers.

If Trump fulfills his campaign promise on tariffs, the U.S. could face retaliation and both countries’ economies could be seriously damaged. It would further increase the already tense situation between the world’s two largest economies. A trade war is not an answer. Trump’s alternatives, after he assumes office, are to negotiate broader access to the Chinese market for American companies, demand enforcement of international intellectual property laws, and negotiate a better deal to balance tariffs.

With China’s military and economic strength, it certainly is flexing its muscles in pursuit of its ambition to be a major global power. To ensure that America continues its prominent role in the Pacific, we need cool heads, strong diplomacy, and reliable allies, such as Japan, Korea and India, as counterweight to China’s aggressive, expansionist designs.