The United States will take steps to foil Chinese efforts to “take over” the South China Sea, the White House has indicated, amid growing hints that Donald Trump’s administration intends to challenge Beijing over the strategic waterway.
Speaking at a press briefing on Monday White House press secretary Sean Spicer vowed the US would “make sure that we protect our interests” in the resource-rich trade route, through which some $4.5tn (£3.4tn) in trade passes each year.His comments come less than a fortnight after Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, set the stage for a potentially explosive clash with Beijing by likening its artificial island building campaign in the South China Sea to “Russia’s taking of Crimea”.
Tillerson told his confirmation hearing the White House needed to send China a “clear signal” that such activities had to stop and that its access to such territories was “not going to be allowed”.“They are taking territory or control or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s,” Tillerson said.
Chinese media responded by warning that any attempt to prevent China accessing its interests in the region risked sparking a “large-scale war”.At his first question and answer session with the press on Monday Spicer again hinted Trump’s administration would take a harder line on the South China Sea.“It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country,” he told News reporters.
Spicer declined to explain how such steps might be enforced. “I think, as we develop further, we’ll have more information on it,” he said.However, scholars who have been advising Trump’s team on China policy back a more muscular military approach, primarily through a dramatically strengthened navy in the region.“We’ve talked a big game on security but haven’t really followed it up all that well with the military muscle that was needed,” Daniel Blumenthal, the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington-based thinktank, told the Guardian.
Blumenthal said a “strong, persistent US naval presence” was now required to back up a foreign policy “that at its bottom line says that China’s not going to control the South China Sea … But you can’t do that without military resources.”
China claims sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea and in recent years has stepped up a campaign to cement its control over a region where Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
It has done so partly by transforming a series of remote coral reefs into what experts say are effectively military outposts designed to help enforce its territorial claims.Last month a US thinktank said “significant” weapons systems, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile system, had been deployed on China’s artificial islands. Beijing claims it has no intention of militarising them.Blumenthal said he believed there was now “broad bipartisan support for trying to stem this expansionism, which is leading to effective Chinese control over the South China Sea”.
In July 2016, a judgment by an international tribunal in The Hague came down overwhelmingly in favour of claims by the Philippines to rocky outcrops in the South China Sea, a verdict disputed by Beijing.
“If indeed [the artificial islands] are not sovereign territory – and we don’t recognise them as so, and the region doesn’t recognise them as so, and the Hague didn’t recognise them as so – then there are all sorts of activities, up and down an escalation ladder, that the United States could take should we want to in terms of Chinese encroachment,” Blumenthal said.Critics believe such moves would spark a furious reaction from Beijing and throw US-China ties into turmoil.
“This administration is shaping up to be the most hawkish administration against China in living memory … and this is not a recipe for great power stability, it is a recipe for great power friction,” said Ashley Townshend, a South China Sea expert from the University of Sydney’s United States studies centre.“A blockade [of China’s artificial islands] would be incredibly provocative and would almost certainly spark a US-China confrontation on the water … If the US is going to blockade China’s access to territories which it – rightly or wrongly – believes are its, then we are in for a confrontation.”
More likely, Townshend said, was that Trump would order the stepping-up of freedom of navigation and overflight operations, which have come increasingly close to features in the South China Sea claimed by China.Despite fears about the direction US policy towards China may take under the new president, Blumenthal argued a more robust stance from Washington could in fact improve ties.“My own view and my own experience in government is that when you are very clear with China about what your national interests are and what you are going to do in the region, they become very clear as well and say, ‘You know what, we’re going to stop pushing’ and the relationship in certain areas can improve.
“I think the most dangerous scenario was the one we were heading towards: a lot of tough talk on the South China Sea, but China continuing to encroach and the United States not really putting a lot of muscle behind the statements it was making.”