New Delhi: You might occasionally wonder how the United States will roll back Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea whose islands and reefs are being fortified and militarized. Until Donald Trump came to power, the United States was trapped in an immediate post-Cold War mindset in which residual threats from Russia, the inheritor state of the Soviet Union, were magnified to extremes, and the real and present threat from China was ignored. Indeed China, for all its expansionist impulses, its mercantilism, its cynical aggregation of power for world dominion, was treated benignly and even indulgently while Russia was confronted. It was almost as though the United States became interminably programmed to contain Russia having done so for more than seventy years. And the relative newness and peculiarity of the Chinese threat, in which core authoritarianism was embedded in a glitzy package of pragmatism (quite unlike the former Soviet Union), required strategic reorientation on the part of the United States, an enterprise which successive administrations kicked ahead like a can for future presidents to grapple with, until the task fell to the most un-presidential occupant of the White House.

It is not certain if Trump knew the consequences of prioritizing the trade war over military confrontation with China in the South China Sea and the East China Sea that it prizes. Previous administrations had also undertaken “freedom of navigation” manoeuvres in the seas claimed by China but they were ad hoc and more than neutralized by US reluctance to challenge Chinese economic power built on dodgy foundations. It was extraordinary that China was headed to become a multi-trillion-dollar economy based on a model of highly profitable exports to the West which it was, at the same time, threatening in its backyard in a pattern that would surely be replicated worldwide in due course. In other words, the West led by the United States was aiding and abetting China’s rise against itself, against genuinely competitive market economics, and still more importantly, against the principles and practices of liberal democracy.

One could legitimately argue that Donald Trump scarcely is the upholder of cherished Western values of democracy, justice, rule of law, and market economics. But it is often imperfect leaders who show the way. The Chinese have long been accustomed to their inflated sense of entitlement being constantly gratified and they have been shocked and confounded by Trump’s refusal to play along. If Trump had been a military hawk (which he isn’t by far) and taken on China in the contested Asia-Pacific seas, an outright American victory would have been imperilled by Vietnam-like peace movements at home. The White House would have soon become embattled trying to make US public opinion understand the importance of keeping the South China Sea and the East China Sea open to all nations. “Freedom of navigation” would have sounded as outre and outlandish as “Domino theory”.

Unfortunately for China, Donald Trump’s opposition to foreign military engagement was more than compensated by his doggedness to end Chinese trade malpractices and intellectual property misappropriations and their disastrous effect on US power. Donald Trump is not an ideologue. But his moment of conversion to one had perhaps arrived. The United States needed a credible foreign adversary. It was pathetic to target Russia, even Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as the evil empire. The decline of US power was linked to China’s rise as an economic behemoth. Other nations were also involved in bleeding America but China was the leading evil. Trump, however, was careful to calibrate military engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. Instead, he launched a fuller trade war which has left China reeling. Seeing that Trump had unerringly damaged China, the US establishment has joined the battle. It has finally realized that Putin’s Russia is a lesser economy and therefore a lesser threat than China. With the United States having redirected its punitive energies against China in the main, the NATO allies of Europe have followed suit. The Chinese economy is the soft underbelly of China. Now, it is cruelly exposed.

Having remarkably succeeded in undermining the Chinese economy, the United States has embarked on its final course of a military containment of China. US naval and air force challenges to Chinese claims over the contested seas have dramatically risen. A US naval commander is to visit with his Chinese counterpart to keep confrontations controlled and communication lines open. The United States has got its hooks into China. Very soon, the Chinese economy will be at the mercy of the West. From there, the political, military and societal unravelling of China is at hand. Getting rich is nearly always a pleasant experience. Coming down in life is usually what people cannot accept.