No one would deny that Donald Trump has harnessed an acute sense of apprehension among voters. “Nothing works. Our country doesn’t work. Everybody wins except us,” said Trump on Thursday, invoking his typical pitch to the disaffected. For the multitudes that count themselves among this halting economic recovery’s losers, it is effective. History is replete with towering figures that would channel a public’s frustrations outward and toward foreign capitals, and Trump appears determined to join their ignominious ranks. The style of aggrieved nationalism Trump pushes is a familiar sort. When he’s not accusing Mexico City of out-maneuvering Washington and foisting their criminal population upon the United States, he is claiming that Beijing is running rings around this administration. Trump has positioned himself as the GOP’s leading hawk when it comes to Sino-American relations. When pressed on how he might specifically address true provocation from Beijing, however, the Republican Party’s leading presidential candidate was characteristically stumped.
“Okay, looking to Asia,” the radio host Hugh Hewitt asked in his illuminating interview of Trump, “if China were to either accidentally or intentionally sink a Filipino or Japanese ship, what would Commander-In-Chief Donald Trump do in response?”
The would-be president’s response to a question about a hypothetical military provocation from China was uninspiring. It must be read in its entirety to be believed:
I wouldn’t want to tell you, because frankly, they have to, you know, somebody wrote a very good story about me recently, and they said there’s a certain unpredictable, and it was actually another businessman, said there’s a certain unpredictability about Trump that’s great, and it’s what made him a lot of money and a lot of success. You don’t want to put, and you don’t want to let people know what you’re going to do with respect to certain things that happen. You don’t want the other side to know. I don’t want to give you an answer to that. If I win, and I’m leading in every single poll, if I win, I don’t want people to know exactly what I’m going to be doing.
That’s right. In the event of a major escalation of hostilities in the South China Sea or elsewhere in the Pacific, Trump’s would inform Beijing that he’s leading in the polls.
The celebrity candidate attempted to mask his lack of background knowledge by pretending that he was maintaining operational secrecy and unpredictability in the event of a crisis. That’s fine for a commander-in-chief, but it is utterly insufficient in a candidate. If Trump had some command of the subject matter upon which he was asked to opine, which he does not, he would have been perfectly at ease discussing the diplomatic and economic consequences for Chinese aggression. If he wanted to divulge a possible military dimension to America’s response to a provocation from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), he might have talked about the nature of interdiction warfare and what a limited-scale and contained intervention against Chinese assets in places like the Middle East and Africa would look like. But Donald Trump didn’t know what he was talking about.
This is not a hypothetical situation. The scenario Hewitt was discussing has essentially already occurred. In early August, two Vietnamese fishing vessels were pursued, rammed, and attacked with water cannon by a PLAN ship. It occurred following Beijing’s announcement of snap naval exercises in the contested waters off its southern coast. The artificial island military bases that China has spent the last year developing in the Spratly chain are nearing operational capacity. It is believed that the PLA can already project force out from these islands, and that this power projection capability will be many times greater than today by the first year of the next president’s first term in office.
This is not a part of the world of which an American commander-in-chief can afford to be ignorant. “The oil transported through the Strait of Malacca from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is more than six times the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 17 times the amount that transits the Panama Canal,” Robert Kaplan observed in a 2011 piece for Foreign Policy. “Roughly two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and about 80 percent of China’s crude-oil imports come through the South China Sea. What’s more, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a potentially huge bounty.” The sheer volume of trade and energy reserves that pass through these sea lanes renders them a flashpoint, and China has made it clear that it will fight for primacy over them.
For those who would ignore the realities of the modern globalized world and who hope that America that can retreat back into its fortress, a citadel that never really existed but which retains its mythic appeal, the Chinese would disabuse them of the idea that a return the status quo ante 1945 is achievable. “Five Chinese navy ships are currently operating in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, Pentagon officials said Wednesday, marking the first time the U.S. military has seen Chinese naval activity in the area,” the Wall Street Journal reported this week.
The five vessels consist of Chinese combat ships and amphibious landing craft – a naval armada that just happened to arrive in Alaskan waters at the same time that the President of the United States was making a historic visit to the Frontier State. There are no coincidences.
If the Obama presidency has demonstrated anything, it is that there is no room for on-the-job training when it comes to matters related to national security and foreign policy. The idea that a President Trump would surround himself with figures well versed in military affairs is betrayed by the fact that he can only identify them from the Sunday morning news programs on which he has seen them appear. And if you happen to ask those martial men if they have had much of any interaction with Trump in the past, they’ll say they have not.
The overwhelming evidence that one must ignore in order to remain convinced that Donald Trump can serve as President of the United States requires a commitment to self-delusion that is nothing short of remarkable.