Trump And China Are On A Collision Course In Contested Seas

REUTERS/China Daily

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The Trump administration has signaled that it will take a tough stance in the South China Sea, putting it at odds with China.

China has constructed military outposts atop artificial islands in the highly-contested South China Sea. President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state proposed taking a stand against Chinese activities two weeks ago, and the White House press secretary did the same Monday.

“They are taking territory or control or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s,” Rex Tillerson said during his Senate confirmation hearing.

He compared China’s activities in the South China Sea to “Russia’s taking of Crimea.”

The U.S. is “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,” he explained.

The China Daily dismissed Tillerson’s comments as a “mishmash of naiveté, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices and unrealistic political fantasies,” and the nationalist Global Times warned of a “large-scale war.”

“I think the U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday.

“If those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yes, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country,” he added.

Spicer’s comments represent a notable departure from the cautious policies of the previous administration.

China said Tuesday that it has “irrefutable sovereignty” over the islands in the South China Sea and reminded the U.S. that it is not involved in the South China Sea disputes.

“We strongly urge the United States to respect the facts and speak and act cautiously to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” Hua explained.

“Our actions in the South China Sea are reasonable and fair,” she said. “No matter what changes happen in other countries, what they say or what they want to do, China’s resolve to defend its sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea will not change.”

China’s vast claims to the South China Sea were discredited last summer by a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague; however, China continues its efforts to dominate the region.

“A blockade – which is what would be required to actually bar access – is an act of war,” South China Sea expert Mira Rapp-Hooper at the Center for a New American Security told Reuters.

China’s official responses have been tame, perhaps because it is merely rhetoric that has not yet become policy. If Trump does pursue this particular course, it may put China and the U.S. on a confrontational path.

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