The 3,000 acres of artificial land China has built on reefs and shoals in the South China Sea are no longer mere piles of sand. Satellite images released in December revealed their transformation into floating fortresses, complete with anti-aircraft guns, radar stations, and military-length runways.
These are the controversial islands that Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of State, said the new administration would not allow China to access – a proposal that Chinese state media warned Friday could lead to war.
“Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish,” the Global Times, a state-run tabloid, said in an editorial.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea, despite competing claims by countries including the Philippines and Vietnam. It has asserted ever greater control over the region since it started building islands there in 2013, challenging the US-led status quo that has defined the Western Pacific since the end of World War II.
Mr. Tillerson’s comments at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday potentially set the stage for a major clash between Washington and Beijing and have further strained one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships. While his testimony may not become official policy under the new administration, it provides the latest signal to Beijing of the uncertainty that lies ahead.
Trump vs. Beijing
So far Chinese officials have chosen to play down Tillerson’s tough talk. Lu Kang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stressed mutual respect and cooperation with the United States in a daily news briefing Thursday. He declined to answer a reporter’s question about what Beijing might do if the US moved to block China from the islands, brushing it off as a “hypothetical question.”
Neither Tillerson nor Trump's transition team have given specifics on how China might be denied access to the artificial islands, though experts agree that it would have to involve some form of military deployment. Robert Ross, a political science professor at Boston College who closely follows developments in the South China Sea, says there’s little question about what would happen if the US were to take such a step.
“Any effort to deny China’s access to its facilities would certainly lead to a maritime crisis and a high likelihood of hostilities,” he says in an email. “China’s low-key response suggests that it will wait until after Donald Trump assumes office before treating such statements as policy.”
For now, Tillerson’s remarks add to the growing list of potential showdowns between Beijing and the incoming administration. Trump frequently criticized China during his campaign, mostly on trade issues, and recently took to Twitter to attack China over its support for North Korea. In another affront, Trump spoke by telephone with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen after his election last year, in a historic break with US diplomatic precedent. And Beijing was further irritated when Ms. Tsai visited with US officials during a stopover in Texas last week, though no Trump representatives were in attendance.
Tillerson’s comments were met with confusion and disbelief in Beijing. The former Exxon Mobil CEO compared the islands' construction and the deployment of military assets on them with Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. He said Beijing’s activity in the South China Sea Sea was "extremely worrisome," and that it would be a threat to the "entire global economy" if it were able to control the oil-and-gas rich waterway through which $5 trillion in annual trade passes.
The Global Times said in its Friday editorial that it suspected Tillerson was simply trying to “increase his chances of being confirmed by intentionally showing a tough stance toward China.” But it also issued a stern warning: “If Trump's diplomatic team shapes future Sino-US ties as it is doing now, the two sides had better prepare for a military clash.”
The China Daily, another state-backed newspaper, issued a similar warning in its own editorial Friday. It cautioned that acting on Tillerson’s words “would set a course for devastating confrontation between China and the US.”
'Not inherently stable'
The Obama administration has periodically sent warships to challenge Chinese claims to territorial waters around the artificial islands in what it calls freedom of navigation operations. But it has stopped short of taking more aggressive measures, instead choosing to focus on ways to work with China.
“Over the last three years China and US have developed a level of cooperation that may have the effect of reducing a major accident from occurring,” says Taylor Fravel, an associate professor of political science at MIT who studies China’s territorial disputes. “Deepening that relationship is very important. It’s not an inherently stable situation."
With Trump's inauguration a week away, Professor Fravel is unsure that such cooperation will continue.
“If Trump acts upon all the statements he’s made as president-elect," he says, "US-China relations are headed for a downwards spiral."
Trump has said that on his first day in office, he will order his Treasury secretary to label China a currency manipulator. He has also pledged to impose high, retaliatory tariffs on China that economists say would all but guarantee a trade war. And Tillerson’s threat, should it become reality, could raise tensions to a much higher level.
Still, experts including Professor Ross of Boston College consider such an outcome unlikely.
“Tillerson’s remarks may be appropriate to secure confirmation from the Senate, but as policy they are not at all helpful,” he says. “As secretary of State, Tillerson would likely adopt a far more prudent approach to China’s maritime activities.”