Did Rex Tillerson just move the US closer to war with China?

Trump's pick for secretary of state said that the US would take aggressive action to stop Chinese installations in the South China Sea.

Steve Helber/AP
Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2107, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Rex Tillerson, president-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, told senators at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday that he would keep Chinese ships from accessing artificial islands it has been building in the South China Sea.

“We’re going to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,” said Mr. Tillerson.

The construction of military installations on newly created islands, in waters claimed by other Asian countries, was “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea,” he said. 

“They’re taking territory or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s.”

Tillerson did not elaborate on how, exactly, the United States would seek to block China from the islands. The Obama administration has periodically sent warships to skirt the islands, which has done little to discourage China from work on the installations.

But the policy would dramatically reshape US thinking on Chinese expansionism, drawing a hard new territorial line in China’s backyard and, experts say, invite a military confrontation with Beijing.

"If Tillerson tries to fulfill that promise [to deny Beijing access to the islands], there will be a war with China," said Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, in an interview with the Australian Financial Review. "Some would see this as a statement of strength and assertiveness, I would see it as one of ignorance and irresponsibility."

China’s foreign ministry sounded a subdued tone in its first reaction to Tillerson’s comments, reported the Guardian, with spokesman Lu Kang stressing “non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation” as the bedrock of China-US relations. But he also said that China had been acting within the limits of its sovereignty, and left no room for interpretation in its control of the islands.

“Like the US, China has the right within its own territory to carry out normal activities,” he said, according to Bloomberg.

Analysts in China consulted by The New York Times responded with a mix of bewilderment, disbelief, and defiance.

“Is this a warning? Or will this be a policy option?” Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University, told the Times. “If this is a policy option, this will not be able to block China’s access to these constructed islands. There is no legal basis.”

And a US attempt to police Chinese activities in the South China Sea could put the government in an untenable position domestically: much of the public sees those waters and territories as indisputably Chinese, with school textbooks marking out a swath of the Sea within the “nine-dash line” – a demarcation that is not recognized by its neighbors or the Hague – as belonging to the nation.

After an international court in the Hague ruled in July that the nine-dash line had no legal basis, public anger was such that official censors stepped in to delete a wave of ultra-nationalist posts on social-media site Weibo, reported Foreign Policy that month. The government, meanwhile, simply ignored the ruling.

Tillerson also suggested that the US would rally its Asian allies to get behind an aggressive approach – though much of southeast Asia has made recent gestures that it would defer to Chinese influence. As Ben Rosen wrote for The Christian Science Monitor in July, the Association of Southeastern Asian Nations (ASEAN) watered down criticism of China’s noncompliance with the Hague’s ruling from a joint statement at the behest of Cambodia: 

“Cambodia’s demand that ASEAN refrain from mentioning the ruling shows the sway that China has over its neighbors about territorial disputes in the South China Sea, even if it erodes their own sovereignty, because of the economic significance of the sea lanes. The South China Sea carries more than $5 trillion in global trade through it each year,” Rosen reported.

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