China may bully its neighbors, but turning foreign territorial disputes into a superpower conflict between nuclear-armed rivals would be a huge mistake.
In his Jan. 13 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson made an extraordinary comment concerning China's activities in the hotly disputed South China Sea.
The United States, 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."
Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated the threat on Jan. 24.
Sometimes it's 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 Spratly and Paracel islands.
It would be an act of war.
While Beijing's Foreign Ministry 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 U.S."
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."
The Roots of China's Anxiety
A certain amount of this is posturing by two powerful countries in competition for markets and influence, but Tillerson's statement didn't 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's important to try to understand what's behind China's behavior.
The current crisis has its roots in a tense standoff between Beijing and Taiwan in late 1996. China 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 Beijing and downgraded relations with Taiwan to "unofficial."
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