Earlier this week, while national attention was focused on the possibility that Donald Trump has a pee fetish, the likely next secretary of State promised to block China’s access to its disputed islands in the South China Sea — an action that would almost certainly entail a military confrontation between the world’s two greatest powers.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops,” Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, likening China’s activities in the South China Sea to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “And second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea — and thus, most of the 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that lie beneath it.
Vietnam and the Philippines are pretty sure that they actually have a rightful claim to much of that water and untapped energy. And international law, as clarified by a ruling handed down last year, largely agrees.
The Obama administration has declined to take a side in these sovereignty disputes, focusing instead on asserting America’s right to move through those waters by sailing warships past China’s islands in so-called “freedom of navigation exercises.”
Meanwhile, China has sought to solidify its claims by constructing new islands throughout the sea and filling them with radar stations and runways capable of providing safe landing to jumbo jets.
So, Beijing is pretty serious about controlling those waters — it is not going to forfeit access to its islands because Rex Tillerson asked Xi Jinping super nicely. Experts who spoke with the Guardian all agreed that Trump could only fulfill Tillerson’s vow via a “significant show of military force.”
And Chinese state media has offered the same assessment.
“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 Communist Party–controlled Global Times wrote in an editorial Friday. “If Trump’s diplomatic team shapes future Sino-U.S. ties as it is doing now, the two sides had better prepare for a military clash.”
The implications of Tillerson’s statement lead the paper to suspect that he “merely wanted to curry favor from senators and increase his chances of being confirmed by intentionally showing a tough stance toward China.”
And that seems like the safe-money bet. Especially since, at other points, Tillerson stressed the importance of America’s economic ties with China and praised it as a “a valuable ally in curtailing elements of radical Islam.” What’s more, incoming Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Thursday that the U.S. will have to “manage” the “competition between us and China” because our military is not, presently, strong enough for us to dominate them.
That said, Trump has been nothing but belligerent toward Beijing since becoming president-elect. Beyond threatening to slap massive tariffs on China’s exports and revoke America’s support for the One China policy, Trump has also staffed his administration with multiple China hard-liners, including Peter Navarro, who has described the nation as a “despicable, parasitic, brutal, brass-knuckled, crass, callous, amoral, ruthless and totally totalitarian imperialist power.”
And as the New York Times notes — if Tillerson feels any residual loyalty to his former employer — he’ll have significant incentive to play hardball on China’s sovereignty claims: In 2009, ExxonMobil signed an agreement with the Vietnamese-government-owned firm to drill for oil and gas in parts of the South China Sea that Beijing claims as its own.
If America were to pursue a foreign policy dictated by the interests of Exxon’s shareholders, it would involve softening relations with Russia and confronting China in its disputed waters. A significant faction of Trump’s advisers appear interested in such a policy.