Was this a prelude to a major escalation in the South China Sea, or is the Trump administration foreign policy team having trouble articulating itself?
On Monday, new White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the United States would prevent China from taking over territory in international waters in the South China Sea.
His comments were widely interpreted as doubling down on remarks by Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, on Jan. 11 that the United States would not allow China access to islands it has built in the South China Sea, and upon which it has installed weapons systems and built military-length airstrips.
“The U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” Spicer said when asked if President Trump agreed with his nominee.
“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.”
Experts had initially thought Tillerson might have misspoken, but Spicer’s remarks appeared to raise the likelihood that the administration was indeed considering blocking China’s access to its new islands in the Spratlys.
China’s Foreign Ministry reacted calmly to Tillerson’s remarks last week, declining to be drawn into how it would react in a “hypothetical” situation. On Tuesday, it said it had “non-negotiable sovereignty” to the Nansha — or Spratly — islands and surrounding areas, and added it insisted on solving disputes through peaceful bilateral negotiations with other countries in the region.
“The United States is not a country directly involved in the South China Sea,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news conference. “We urge the United States to respect facts and speak and act cautiously to avoid damaging peace and stability in the area.”
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Last week, state-run China Daily dismissed Tillerson’s remarks as “not worth taking seriously because they are a mishmash of naiveté, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices and unrealistic political fantasies.” But nationalist tabloid the Global Times warned that any move to blockade the islands could provoke a “large-scale war.”
That is an assessment broadly shared by many foreign policy experts.
Mira Rapp-Hooper, a South China Sea expert at the Center for a New American Security, called the threats to bar China’s access in the South China Sea “incredible” and told Reuters it had no basis in international law.
“A blockade — which is what would be required to actually bar access — is an act of war,” she added.
Chen Xiangmiao, a research fellow at the National Institute for the South China Sea, said Spicer appeared to have kept the same “hardline attitude” displayed by Tillerson and Trump before his inauguration and during the campaign.
“Trump is the president now, he is no longer in the campaign phase, and what he said may actually be put into practice,” he said. “China needs to be more alert.”
Chen said what worried experts here was “whether Trump and his team truly understand the South China Sea issues, whether they truly understand China’s stance and situation and whether they truly understand America’s interests in that area.”
Trump himself has criticized China for building what he called a “massive fortress” in the South China Sea.
But what exactly does he want to do about it?
There is confusion in foreign policy circles.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was quoted as saying last week that she had heard from some members of the Trump transition team that Tillerson “misspoke” during five hours of Senate testimony, but on Monday she told Reuters that Spicer’s remarks were “worrisome” and more evidence of “confusing and conflicting messages.”
As Chinese media have pointed out, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia also control islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, yet the United States is not demanding they leave the area.
Asked how the United States would enforce any move against China, Spicer seemed keen to change the subject, saying only: “I think, as we develop further, we’ll have more information on it” — before turning to another question.
As Bill Hayton, an associate fellow at Chatham House and South China Sea expert, pointed out in a piece for Foreign Policy last week, there are different interpretations of what the new administration might be thinking.
Related: China returns seized U.S. naval drone despite Trump’s call to ‘keep it’
One is that Tillerson can be taken both seriously and literally: that the United States government will attempt a blockade as a way to force Beijing to respect last year’s ruling by an international tribunal, that China’s claim to the waters encompassed by its “nine-dash line” was not supported by the international law of the sea.
A blockade would be an attempt to force China to allow other nations more freedom to fish and drill for oil in the disputed waters, and “above all, give up any attempts to block U.S. naval ships transiting, exercising, or gathering intelligence in the South China Sea,” Hayton wrote.
Indeed, that is one of the main bones of contention between Washington and Beijing over the vital waterways. Chinese think tanks complain that U.S. military vessels and aircraft are conducting operations and reconnaissance missions close to its shores more and more frequently.
Beijing insists it will allow commercial shipping free passage but clearly believes the U.S. Navy should stay out of its back yard, seizing an American underwater drone in the South China Sea last month apparently to make that point. The United States says its navy has the right to sail in international waters.
But as Hayton pointed out, a U.S. attempt to enforce its position through a blockade could provoke military conflict and lose the support of American allies in Asia keen to avoid a superpower confrontation.
Yet there is another possibility: that Tillerson and Spicer are in fact indirectly referring to concerns about Scarborough Shoal, a partly submerged chain of reefs and rocks close to the Philippines that China seized in 2012.
Sen. John McCain is among those who have warned that China was planning to build a military base on Scarborough Shoal, to form a triangular network when combined with existing bases in the Spratly and the Paracel islands.
The Obama administration, Hayton pointed out, was reported to have told China in 2016 it was prepared to physically deter any attempts to build on the shoal, and had deployed ships and aircraft to the area to back up that threat.
An attempt to stop China building a new island on Scarborough Shoal would imply greater continuity with policy under Obama, and be less confrontational than preventing China’s navy from getting access to existing islands. Indeed, Beijing knows that any attempt to build a new island on the Shoal would be provocative in itself.
“Tillerson may therefore have been simply stating that he wants this strategy to continue — stopping any island-building on Scarborough Shoal by denying construction vessels access to it,” Hayton wrote.
Dean Cheng, a China expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Reuters the administration had left open the possibility of economic measures — instead of military steps — against China and firms that carry out island building.
Yet given a chance this week to clarify where his government stands on the South China Sea, Spicer appears to have muddied the waters still further.
Emily Rauhala and Congcong Zhang contributed to this report.
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Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.