Any uncertainty regarding how far Donald Trump is prepared to go in pushing back against China’s strategic and economic ambitions was swiftly dispelled in Washington this week. Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a hearing to confirm his appointment as secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson said China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea was illegal and “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea”.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops,” Mr Tillerson said. “And second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
US secretaries of state rarely employ such forceful or blunt rhetoric, let alone in regard to a nuclear-armed country that vigorously asserts its sovereignty over most of the vast South China Sea. Unsurprisingly, Mr Tillerson’s remarks have produced a genuine frisson of disquiet in foreign policy circles, accentuated by his failure to elaborate on how America might deny China access to the islands or what kind of signal it might send to Beijing to get it to stop its base-building.
China’s claims to the resources of the South China Sea are long-standing, and when Beijing dismissed last year’s ruling by an international tribunal in the Hague that its so-called “nine-dash line” had no legal basis, it signalled those territorial claims were non-negotiable. To back them, Beijing is believed to have installed surface-to-surface missile batteries on the reclaimed islands, and is rapidly acquiring a blue water navy capability. Indeed, the country’s only aircraft passed through the Taiwan Strait this week on its way back from exercises in the South China Sea.
A naval blockade of the islands – the only way the United States could feasibly give effect to Mr Tillerson’s “signals” – would in all likelihood lead to threats, perhaps even to a Chinese military response. The implications of such a standoff are so obvious and profound that one wonders why he spoke in such confrontational terms.
Mr Tillerson is a former ExxonMobil chief executive and has no background in government. He does have some political and diplomatic skills, however, as he revealed elsewhere in his confirmation, declaring that he accepted climate change was a genuine threat and saying he did not believe Japan and South Korea should acquire nuclear weapons.
There is a theory that Mr Tillerson’s strident opposition to China’s expansionist policies derives partly from his involvement in an ExxonMobil deal with Vietnam seven years ago to drill for natural gas in waters also claimed by Beijing. And perhaps, like Mr Trump, he believes China is more likely to respect plain talking than diplomatic double-speak. But international relations are far more nuanced and complex than even the most elaborate business deal, and it’s to be hoped that the Department of State’s advisers can quickly disabuse Mr Tillerson of any notions that gunboat diplomacy will work in the South China Sea.