It isn’t our China problem

STEVE Bannon really does not like China. I’m not sure what China did to him, but he’s made it his personal mission to go after the country with everything he’s got.

The story goes that when he was a young naval officer in the 1980s, he was so outraged by the fact that US warships patrolling the South China Sea had to sail with their radar “down” (meaning not tracking sea traffic) that it warranted, in his view, no less than the Seventh Fleet to be let loose upon the People’s Liberation Army.

After all, America made the “Persian” Gulf Straits US territory, so why should the South “China” Sea be any different? That his warnings have somewhat come to fruition and innervated his bile is therefore hardly a surprise.

In any other US administration, the frustrations of a cantankerous alt-right conspiracy theorist could be safely dismissed, but not in one headed – as it is today – by an alt-right conspiracy theorist.

If anything, Bannon has been the most effective policy wonk in the Donald Trump administration, despite the fact that his official role as chief strategist to the White House was relatively short-lived.

His policy platforms on immigration (no!), taxes (lower!) and healthcare (forget about it!) have been followed to a T. But his biggest beef by far is with China. He was the hand behind the trade war, and now, he wants literal blood.

And, he might get it, too. US-China relations have deteriorated to dangerous lows over South China Sea territoriality. The US is openly stoking confrontation by bringing out its top-gear B1 Lancer supersonic bombers and warships to patrol the region.

Beyond our territorial claims, there is a lot at stake for Malaysia. A third of the world’s shipping traffic flows through the South China Sea, which also contains 10% of the world’s fisheries, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and some 11 billion barrels of oil.

You can see why the Americans want a dog in this fight. US State Secretary Mike Pompeo is urging Asean to stand up to China, and some countries like the Philippines are taking the bait. In Manila, there are mass protests on the streets in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Before we are goaded into the fray, it’s important to remember what happens when the US presses its own interests under the cover of democratic moral authority.

Apart from the risks to critical resources and global trade, it’s clear that Trump believes his best shot at re-election is a strong stance against China. This is especially true after his disastrous handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

The last thing we want is for the US to grow bored of the Middle East and shift its focus to Southeast Asia. Anyone remember Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and if Bannon has his way, Iran?

Malaysia should be clear that our interests lie as much to the East as they do to the West. We are a critical stop on China’s Belt and Road trade route, and one of the largest recipients of China’s outbound investments.

At the end of the day, we will have to stay on here when the US decides to move on. Remember this: when it goes after a country, America rarely wins. But that country always loses.

It looks like China is in the crosshairs next. Let’s not get in the middle of it. – May 8, 2020.

* Dr Rais Hussin Mohamed Ariff is president and CEO of Emir Research.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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