President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of state pick has a plan for the South China Sea likely to put China and the U.S. on a collision course.
Rex Tillerson compared China’s assertive behavior at sea “to Russia’s taking of Crimea” during his confirmation hearing Wednesday.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” Tillerson explained.
“They are taking territory or control or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s,” he added.
The former Exxon Mobil Corp chairman and chief executive blamed China’s island-building and militarization on the Obama administration. “The failure of a response has allowed them just to keep pushing the envelope on this,” Tillerson argued.
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. has limited its response to criticisms along with occasional overflights and freedom-of-navigation operations.
China’s vast claims to the South China Sea were discredited by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last summer. China rejected the authority of the tribunal, as well as the ruling, without consequence.
Vowing to defend its maritime sovereignty, China continues to militarize its outposts in the South China Sea.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative identified point-defense installations on all seven of China’s outposts in the Spratly Islands in December.
China has also flown bombers around the Spratlys and along its nine-dashed line.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs encouraged the U.S. to adhere to the principles of “non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual benefits, and win-win cooperation.”
While the foreign ministry issued a restrained response to Tillerson’s comments, refusing to speculate on Tillerson’s intentions, his statements almost certainly caused concern in China.
“[Chinese president] Xi Jinping will not be seen as weak and soft in the face of pressure from the United States, so I really do worry about an early crisis with China,” Bonnie Glaser, the senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained the Guardian, “China is not going to allow the United States to deny it access to what it sees as its own territory.”
“China has been restrained in the face of all the tweets and rhetoric because they hope they can put the US-China relationship on an even keel,” Glaser added, “The Chinese have not given up on that, but at some point Xi Jinping may have to because being seen as weak would damage his ability to consolidate power.”
“Blocking China’s access, presumably with US warships, would precipitate a crisis, a military clash,” said Ashley Townshend, a fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States studies centre, told reporters.
Chinese experts argued that a tough American response would only trigger a military response from China.
“What’s been built has been built … It should be noted that rising American military pressure could be used to justify China’s military deployment,” Wu Xinbo, head of American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, told the South China Morning Post.
“I don’t think the US will stop China from accessing its own islands in the South China Sea,” Yuan Zheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of American Studies, told reporters.
“China is not Cuba, and the South China Sea is not the Caribbean. The South China Sea is not under the US sphere of influence, it’s China’s territorial waters,” Yuan further noted.
Tillerson’s comments reflect “his weaknesses in diplomacy and lack of public service,” Yuan explained.
“Their diplomacy is still far from mature,” Wu said of Trump and his incoming team.
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