Increased Chinese naval capabilities and hawkish statements from the new US secretary of state are making waves in the Asia Pacific, triggering fears of a potential confrontation over Chinese claims in the SCS.
By taking newly confirmed US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at his word, it would seem that the US under the Trump administration is ready to take a more assertive stance on containing Chinese ambition in the South China Sea (SCS).
During his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 11, Tillerson opened a new rhetorical front with China by promising an unprecedented level of engagement from the US in the region. "We're going to have to send China a clear signal that, first the island building stops, and second, your access to those islands is not going to be allowed," he said in response to a question about the US taking a more aggressive posture in the region.
Tillerson also said that China's island-building activities were illegal, adding that "building islands and putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia's taking of Crimea."
After President Trump's inauguration, White House spokesman Sean Spicer doubled down on Tillerson's statements when asked if Trump agreed with the assertion that the US should try and prevent Chinese access to their island constructions.
Spicer said at the press conference on January 23 that the US would make sure to "protect interests" in areas in the South China Sea that are part of "international waters and activities."
Taylor Fravel, a member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and principle investigator at the Maritime Awareness Project, told DW that the US was probably not prepared to use its navy to block access to the islands. "Tillerson made his remarks during a confirmation hearing and such remarks do not necessarily reflect the policies of the new administration," said Fravel, adding that Tillerson himself would be unable to order a blockade.
"Such a decision would ultimately be made by the White House. Moreover, as an act of war, this decision would only be made in extreme circumstances, if tensions with China had already escalated significantly," he added.
Battleship White House?
A hawkish stance on the South China Sea isn't limited to the State Department. During his confirmation hearing, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis was asked if the US-led world order was under more strain than it's ever been. He responded that it was under the "biggest attack" since World War II from Russia, terrorist groups and "with what China is doing in the South China Sea."
Mattis said that deterrence was critical, adding that the US military was not currently strong enough to achieve that goal.
"It would be a significant escalation if this is the first step taken in the South China Sea by the new administration," Tiffany Ma, Senior Director of Political and Security Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research(NBR) in Washington, told DW. "Beyond questions of feasibility, such actions would be dangerous in the absence of a strategy and plan for responding to certain Chinese retaliation," she added.
Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, who was also given a seat on the "principals committee" of the National Security Council, the main body for the formation of US national security and foreign policy, was quoted by the Guardian citing a Breitbart radio interview from March 2016 as saying that the US would be going to war with China in the South China Sea in "five to 10 years."
"They're taking sandbars and making stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those," said Bannon in the interview."They come to the United States and in front of our face, say it's an ancient territorial sea, that's a throwdown is it not?"
With a decisive role on the National Security Council, the temperament of Secretary Tillerson in creating diplomatic solutions for US strategic interests will be critical to avoiding unwanted confrontation with the Chinese over maritime claims in the SCS. "How such a policy will unfold remains to be seen," said Fravel. "Nevertheless, Trump has indicated a broader willingness to challenge China on what Beijing views as sovereignty issues."
Waking the dragon
Beijing contends that the islands in the SCS are Chinese territory and according to China's official Xinhua news agency, the Chinese foreign minister said the US should "speak and act cautiously."
Using a less subdued tone, the Chinese tabloid Global Times, which doesn’t reflect policy but has close affiliation to the Chinese Communist Party wrote that Tillerson's statements were "far from professional" and that the two sides had better prepare for a "military clash" if Trump's diplomatic team "shapes Sino-US ties as it is doing now."
In December 2016, a report from the Asia Transparency Maritime Initiative, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said that China was building "defensive capabilities" on each of its outposts in the Spratly Islands, a group of islets and reefs in the SCS, all of which are claimed entirely by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The structures are indentified in the report by satellite and appear to be large anti-aircraft guns and close-range weapons systems typically used on naval ships. Airstrips have also been built on some of the islands.
"The idea of blocking all seven of China's islets in the Spratlys - each with airfields, ports, and defensive capabilities - spread across a huge swath of sea, and probably also involving all of China's islands , would be an unprecedented challenge," Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told DW. "That suggestion from Tillerson during his confirmation hearing was, in all likelihood, a gaffe that the transition team has since been afraid to walk back on so they do not feed rumors of being underprepared or having poor communication," he added.
An imminent showdown?
The South China Sea is rich in fishing and a potential untapped source of gas and oil. Seven countries have competing claims and some are building air and maritime capacity. With by far the heaviest amount of resources, China has the greatest capacity to gradually build dominance.
The value of annual trade passing through the SCS is estimated to be worth $5.3 trillion (4.9 trillon euros), with the US share alone accounting for $1.2 trillion (1.1 trillion euros). Tillerson said that it would effect the "entire global economy" if China could control access to the shipping lanes.
In 2009, China submitted a map to the UN along with a memorandum stating that it had "indisputable sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea," within the so-called "nine-dash line." It was first demarcated by China in 1947 and comprises the disputed islands, known as "Nanhai Zhudao" in China.
A 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), an international tribunal in The Hague, ruled that China had "no legal basis to claim historic rights to resources falling within the 'nine-dash line.'" China has emphatically rejected the ruling, claiming that the "activities of the Chinese people" in the SCS date back 2,000 years.
Outside of setting a normative standard, the 2016 PCA ruling is non-enforceable and there is little to no multilateral cooperation in the region to counter Chinese expansion. The US Navy, is therefore seen as a guarantor of free movement.
Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the Maritime Security Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told DW that Trump's call to beef up the US Navy to a 355-ship fleet , is a sign that the US intends to increase its strategic posture.
"Even if there're fiscal difficulty in reaching this goal, it's clear that the Navy and to a lesser extent the Air Force would get more resources to at least maintain and qualitatively enhance its forward deployed presence in the region," he said.
It is still too early to predict how the Chinese will test US resolve to use force in the SCS, but the pieces are in place for a showdown.