EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a weekly look at the latest developments in the South China Sea, home to several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
In comments that could raise the stakes in the South China Sea, Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state said the U.S. should stop Beijing from constructing artificial islands and deny it access to them.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said during his Senate confirmation hearing. He compared China’s island-building in the disputed waters to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The outgoing U.S. administration has challenged China by sending warships close to man-made islands on four occasions, but the talk of denying access to those features could significantly raise the risk of military confrontation. It wasn’t clear if Tillerson was referring to the islands with a Chinese military presence already established or those like Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing wrested from the Philippines in 2012 but hasn’t built on yet.
Blocking China’s access to the islands “could spark armed conflict,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “I can’t help but think that he did not mean it this way.”
A person familiar with deliberations inside the Trump transition team was aware of no such plans, raising the likelihood that Tillerson misspoke.
Retired Gen. James Mattis told his own confirmation hearing for secretary of defense that China’s militarization of the South China Sea posed a threat to the global order. Asked about Tillerson’s comments, Mattis said the U.S. needed an integrated government approach to avoid an incomplete or incoherent strategy. He stressed the importance of freedom of commerce and nurturing U.S. alliances in the region.
“The bottom line is that international waters are international waters and we have got to figure out how do we deal with holding on to the kind of rules that we have made over many years that led to the prosperity for many nations, not just for ours,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
China’s Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper called Tillerson’s statements “astonishing,” while China Daily says they are not to be taken seriously “because they are a mish-mash of naivety, shortsightedness, worn-our prejudices, and unrealistic political fantasies.”
The outgoing secretary of state, John Kerry, said that China’s assertiveness has tested “whether the U.S.-China relationship will be defined by our differences or by what we can achieve cooperatively.”
The USS Carl Vinson battle group is on its way to the Western Pacific to augment the Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan — a move seen by China analysts as a sign that Donald Trump’s administration will ratchet up the U.S. military presence in the South China Sea.
The Carl Vinson’s deployment coincides with Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration and the just-completed drills by China’s sole aircraft carrier in and around the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. The combat exercises involving the Liaoning , including takeoffs and landings by J-15 fighter jets and helicopters, have been closely shadowed by both Taiwan and Japan as China’s largest warship sailed past its nervous neighbors.
The Nimitz-class carrier’s dispatch “shows that the Pentagon, including the U.S. Navy, wants to extend Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy and further get involved in the West Pacific,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the state-run Global Times newspaper.
He said that facing pressure from the U.S., China needs to enhance building up of strategic forces and the construction of reefs and islands. “The waters are an effective maneuver to curb China, as 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea. If the U.S. controls the waters, it will be a blow to China,” he said.
The U.S. emphasis on freedom of navigation through waters China considers its sovereign territory is likely to intensify under the Trump administration, the Global Times quoted Lin Zhiyuan, a scholar with the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences, as saying. He believes the deployment of the Carl Vinson was a move by the Pentagon to disrupt potential talks between China and other claimants — notably the Philippines — on solving the disputes bilaterally.
“Although the U.S. relationship with the Philippines is deteriorating, it will continue colluding with Australia and India, as well as strengthen ties with Singapore, Vietnam and other ASEAN countries, in the hope of joint patrols,” he said.
China has welcomed the statement by the Philippines that it won’t raise its arbitration victory against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea during Southeast Asian summit talks hosted by Manila this year.
“We are not going to raise this issue ... because there is really no useful benefit,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said. “This is a matter that we will be raising with China at some future time in bilateral talks and to do and involve others in the discussion of this decision is just simply counter-productive for our purposes.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the disputes were never an issue between Beijing and the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations as a bloc, but rather individual claimants.
Yasay said if any country would like to pursue their respective claims against China, “they can do so and perhaps use the decision of the arbitral tribunal as a precedent-setting case in pursuing the matter.”
Citing improved relations with China, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also put on hold a repair of a runway on Philippine-controlled Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys, which is also claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.
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