Are Tillerson’s Comments An Omen For The South China Sea Policy?

The Influential Chinese newspaper, Global Times, has lambasted Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, over his criticism of China’s multi-billion dollar island building campaign in the South China Sea. The comments came during his confirmation hearing, where Tillerson likened China’s Artificial Island Development to “Russia’s taking of Crimea.” He went on to plainly state his desire to “send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops, and second, access to those islands is also not going to be allowed” (As reported by the BBC). The Global Times then made a swift and damming repost. They labeled Mr. Tillerson’s criticism as, “remarks not worth taking seriously because they are a mish-mash of naivety, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices and unrealistic political fantasies,” as well, they flatly warned that if America intervened, there would be “a large-scale war.” Thus, it seems that, if we are to calculate how likely a conflict is to occur, a question must be answered: Are Mr. Tillerson’s comments justified? Also, should they preempt the stance of the incoming Republican governments’ foreign policy?

With that said, the soon-to-be previous Obama Administration was certainly concerned with China’s propensity for military force, as America has maintained the largest naval presence in the South China Sea since 2008. Purportedly, their presence has been required to support the ongoing cooperation between multiple countries that have declared ownership of various islands. It is hard to deny that America’s presence is, more than likely, necessary. Meanwhile, China has deliberately remained ambiguous over the exact islands it claims. For instance, “The South China Sea islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. It is the bounded duty of the Chinese government to uphold China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate maritime rights and interests” (As reported by the New York Times). This is one of the few comment’s President Xi Jinping has made regarding China’s island claims and, at best, the comment is unspecific. More concerning is evidence of Chinese weapons, that was built on, at least, one island, which provides further evidence of China’s potential militarization. This comes after President Xi Jinping specifically told President Obama that “China does not intend to pursue militarization’’ (As reported by the New York Times). This construction of weapons may also have been a retaliation against the UN’s decision to uphold the claim made by Taiwan, to an island currently controlled by China. It’s a ruling China refuses to acknowledge and, currently, they have not relented control of the island.

Whilst Mr. Tillerson’s motives are questionable, and potentially comprised (for he is the Chief Executive of Exxon Mobil, an oil company that owns part of the market share in China, and the islands of the South China Sea contain a rich supply of oil), his criticism and hard line on Chinese Island Development was justified. As well, from a defense point of view, an American military presence in the South China Sea is undoubtedly necessary due to China’s murkiness over island ownership, and because of the evidence of weapon construction. But for countries like the Philippines and Vietnam to attain their justified claims to islands, then America needs to maintain a constant presence.

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