In his January 13 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson made an extraordinary comment concerning China's activities in the South China Sea. The U.S., he said, must "send a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops," adding that Beijing's "access to the those islands is not going to be allowed."
President Trump's Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated the threat on January 24.
Sometimes it is hard to sift the real from the magical in the Trump administration, and bombast appears to be the default strategy of the day. But people should be clear about what would happen if the U.S. actually tries to blockade China from supplying its forces constructing airfields and radar facilities on the Spratley and Paracel islands.
It would be an act of war.
While Beijing's Foreign Ministry China initially reacted cautiously to the comment, Chinese newspapers have been far less diplomatic. The nationalist Global Times warned of a "large-scale war" if the U.S. followed through on its threat, and the China Daily cautioned that a blockade could lead to a "devastating confrontation between China and the US."
Independent observers agree. "It is very difficult to imagine the means by which the United States could prevent China from accessing these artificial islands without provoking some kind of confrontation," says Rory Medcalf, head of Australia's National Security College. And such a confrontation, says Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales, "could quickly develop into an armed conflict."
Last summer, China's commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy, Wu Shengli, told U.S. Admiral John Richardson that "we will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands halfway." Nansha is China's name for the Spratlys. Two weeks later, Chang Wanquan, China's Defense Minister, said Beijing is preparing for a "people's war at sea."
A certain amount of this is posturing by two powerful countries in competition for markets and influence, but Tillerson's statement did not come out of the blue. In fact, the U.S. is in the middle of a major military buildup, the Obama administration's "Asia Pivot" in the Pacific. American bases in Okinawa, Japan, and Guam have been beefed up, and for the first time since World War II, U.S. Marines have been deployed in Australia. Last March, the U.S. sent B-2 nuclear-capable strategic stealth bombers to join them.
There is no question that China has been aggressive about claiming sovereignty over small islands and reefs in the South China Sea, even after the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rejected Beijing's claims. But if a military confrontation is to be avoided, it is important to try to understand what is behind China's behavior.
The current crisis has its roots in a tense standoff between Beijing and Taiwan in late 1996. The People's Republic of China (PRC) was angered that Washington had granted a visa to Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, calling it a violation of the 1979 U.S. "one-China" policy that recognized the PRC and downgraded relations with Taiwan to "unofficial."
Beijing responded to the visa uproar by firing missiles near a small Taiwan-controlled island and moving some military forces up to the mainland coast facing the island. However, there was never any danger that China would actually attack Taiwan. Even if it wanted to, it didn't have the means to do so.
Instead of letting things cool off, however, the Clinton administration escalated the conflict and sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region, the USS Nimitz and USS Independence. The Nimitz and its escorts sailed through the Taiwan Straits between the island and the mainland, and there was nothing that China could do about it.
The carriers deeply alarmed Beijing, because the regions just north of Taiwan in the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea were the jumping off points for 19th and 20th century invasions by western colonialists and the Japanese.
The Straits crisis led to a radical remaking of China's military, which had long relied on massive land forces. Instead, China adopted a strategy called "Area Denial" that would allow Beijing to control the waters surrounding its coast, in particular the East and South China seas. That not only required retooling of its armed forces -- from land armies to naval and air power -- it required a ring of bases that would keep potential enemies at arm's length and also allow Chinese submarines to enter the Pacific and Indian oceans undetected.