Rex Tillerson’s comments before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are causing an unnecessary escalation of tensions between the US and China. President Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of State has declared that island building must cease, and China should be barred from accessing the islands it currently controls in the South China Sea. The comments are a continuation of President Trump’s antagonistic stance towards China, which is seeing the relationship between the two states rapidly deteriorate. China’s Global Times, a newspaper with strong links to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, responded to the comments, warning that the US should “prepare for a military clash” and a “devastating confrontation.”
The South China Sea is a potential flashpoint for regional stability. Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines and Brunei all border the sea, which is a rich fishing ground and the site of recently discovered oil and natural gas reserves. The sea has endured ongoing controversy since 2012 after a tense stand-off between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal. Since the stand-off China has developed reefs, rocks and small islands in the South China Sea, building them up into islands capable of supporting buildings, radar facilities, military-length air strips and naval harbours. China has also declared an Air Defence Identification Zone over the islands, effectively asserting military control over the region. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague ruled that the Scarborough Shoals were in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. However, President Duterte, elected shortly after the decision, has since chosen not to seek enforcement of the PCA ruling, deciding instead to distance the Philippines from the US and strengthen diplomatic ties with China. A more aggressive US naval presence may not be received favourably in the region.
Mr. Tillerson’s comments are a sharp departure from the approach of the out-going Obama administration. Barring China from access to the islands in the South China Sea would require more aggressive US military involvement. Since declaring a “pivot” towards Asia in 2011, the Obama administration has limited its responses to China’s actions in the sea to official announcements and so-called “freedom of navigation operations.” President Trump, however, has been vocal in his disapproval of China and its policies. He has, since winning the election in November, criticised China’s response to North Korea’s missile program and made comments suggesting that the US would no longer recognise China’s “One China Policy” regarding Taiwan. Trump also based much of his election campaign upon the claim that China is artificially manipulating its currency and distorting international markets. He also ran on a protectionist platform, declaring that many American, blue-collar jobs have been “stolen” by China.
China’s rise in Asia and on the broader international stage has seen tensions between itself and the US grow steadily over the past decade. The South China Sea has been the symbolic battleground for power plays between the two global powers, with China asserting sovereign ownership; and the US sailing its warships through the sea in a direct challenge to those claims. This most recent exchange is a marked escalation of the previously held positions; the two states considering the use of force or the possibility of direct military confrontation. Mr. Trump has shown a willingness to enter into dialogue with Russia on the basis of maintaining global stability. He should advise his proposed Secretary of State to do the same with China, or risk seriously destabilising Asia and the South Pacific if not the world.