Throughout his campaign for the White House, President Donald Trump routinely offered up a respectful, if tough, nod to one of our nation’s chief economic and military rivals, China, letting them know in no uncertain terms that his administration would deal with them far differently than former President Barack Obama.
With respect to the ongoing situation in the international waters of the South China Sea, where China has transformed formerly submerged reefs into actual islands replete with military installations and aircraft runways, White House spokesman Sean Spicer seemed to indicate a substantial shift in policy during a White House news briefing on Monday, according to The Washington Post.
“The U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” Spicer said of the region in question, which has been claimed by China as its own territorial waters.
“It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country,” he added.
Reuters reported that China responded by first stating it has “irrefutable” sovereignty over the islands, adding “the United States is not a party to the South China Sea dispute.”
The area in question, which is claimed in part by China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, is the scene of vital international shipping lanes, vast deposits of gas and oil, and abundant fishing grounds. China has laid claim to all of it, and though the country insists it will keep vital trade routes open, it has also indicated it is prepared to use force to maintain possession of their new islands.
“We urge the United States to respect the facts, speak and act cautiously to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
“Our actions in the South China Sea are reasonable and fair,” she added. “No matter what changes happen in other countries, what they say or what they want to do, China’s resolve to protect its sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea will not change.”
Spicer’s comments and the Chinese response largely stemmed from remarks made by Trump’s appointee to be secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who seemed to suggest during a Jan. 11 confirmation hearing that the U.S. could consider efforts to block China from accessing the islands they have built, or at the very least prevent them from constructing new islands to expand the chain.
“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,” Tillerson said, according to Bloomberg.
An in-depth piece by Foreign Policy explored the potential outcomes from taking such a tough stance against China, the worst of which was all-out war.
The article noted that Tillerson, in his former role as CEO of ExxonMobil, had in the past successfully stood up to China in defense of drilling operations in the region that the Chinese government didn’t like and wondered if Tillerson would be able to duplicate his prior success with the stakes being much higher this time around.
While a break-out of hostilities in the region would be bad for virtually everyone, it is also possible that this tough stance by the Trump administration regarding the South China Sea is simply a negotiating tactic, perhaps part of a bid to convince China to make concessions in other areas in exchange for keeping their new islands, or vice versa, giving up the islands in exchange for other concessions on trade.
Regardless, tensions are running a bit higher now that a U.S. president is ready to oppose China’s territorial grab, something that hasn’t happened over the last eight years.
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