The Trump administration’s muddled and provocative statements about U.S. policy toward China, especially in the contested waters of the South China Sea, have confused allies and aggravated tensions with Beijing, heightening the prospects of a great power conflict.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, stunned lawmakers and foreign governments at his Jan. 11 Senate confirmation hearing when he said that the United States would be ready to block China’s access to artificial islands it is building in the South China Sea. Seemingly just a gaffe, the White House later appeared to double down on Tillerson’s stance, which taken at face value would be tantamount to an act of war.
The comments suggest President Donald Trump’s White House is eager to take an aggressive tone with Beijing, but lacks a coherent strategy to deal with China or a basic grasp of the legal and security issues at stake in the South China Sea, said former officials, diplomats, Asia experts and congressional aides.
“The U.S. looks somewhere between confrontational and disoriented on the South China Sea,” said Evan Medeiros, who served as the top advisor on Asia in Barack Obama’s White House. “This is how you can stumble into a crisis.”
Tillerson’s threat that America would bar China’s access to disputed reefs and islands in the South China Sea would mark a radical break with long established U.S. policies dating back to the 1990s. The U.S. has never taken a side in various territorial disputes in the waterway among China and Southeast Asian countries, but has criticized Beijing’s dredging and island-building as coercive. Throughout, Washington has insisted on the right to operate U.S. military ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace.
Although Tillerson in his testimony accused the previous administration of declaring “red lines” and then violating them over the years, there was a good chance the nominee for secretary of state might soon have to walk back his own warning over the South China Sea, congressional aides and former officials said.
Taken literally, Tillerson’s proposed approach would violate international law and require a naval blockade, which would be an act of war, experts said.
After the hearing, lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave Tillerson a chance to clarify what they assumed was an ill-informed gaffe, but neither he nor the White House took up the offer, aides told Foreign Policy.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer, asked about Tillerson’s newly-coined policy, said instead the United States should defend “international territory.”
That term “is not a legal designation and it’s not something that has meaning in the law of the sea or international law,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Center for a New American Security.
The statements from the administration seem to suggest it is “willing to court conflict with China without being terribly well-informed on this issue,“ Rapp-Hooper said.
The bellicose words on the South China Sea follow a host of other provocative statements and actions by Trump since his election. He broke with decades of U.S. policy by speaking with the Taiwanese president after winning in November; the White House has warned it could reverse the decades-old ‘One China’ policy in favor of Taiwan; and it has threatened punitive trade measures against Beijing.
The idea behind Trump’s approach seems to be that the United States has been weak in its dealings with Beijing, and that a strong hand is needed. Experts said the Trump administration is testing the hypothesis that if the Washington simply gets tougher with China, Beijing will back down.
China, however, already has made clear it is not ready to offer any concessions under pressure, to retreat from its insistence that Taiwan is a part of China, or scale back its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China’s foreign ministry said Tuesday the country’s sovereignty over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea was “irrefutable.”
“We urge the United States to respect the facts, [and] speak and act cautiously to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
China’s already pushed back in recent months. It seized an underwater drone from the U.S. Navy, deployed its aircraft carrier to the Taiwan Strait, piled diplomatic pressure on Taipei, and issued veiled threats against U.S. automakers.
“They have been signaling subtly but clearly that they have cards to play as well and that they’re not going to back down,” one congressional aide said.
The U.S. has had tense encounters with China in the past, including several contentious naval encounters. The tensest came in the early months of George W. Bush’s presidency in 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. reconnaissance plane, forcing it to crash land on Hainan island. The 24-man American crew were detained for 11 days and the Chinese scoured the surveillance aircraft. The incident plunged U.S.-China relations into a deep freeze for several years. In 1996, after China test-fired missiles off Taiwan’s coast to convey its disapproval of Taipei’s politics, former president Bill Clinton ordered a dramatic show of U.S. naval might in the Taiwan Strait to counter Beijing’s intimidatory tactics.
But China is now a much more powerful player on the world stage, with a massive economy and an increasingly capable military equipped with ship-killing missiles that threaten the U.S. Navy’s dominance. And its political and military leaders have a growing confidence that their country’s moment has arrived.
As a result, Washington and Beijing could be headed on a collision course, as both countries could be overestimating their own power and misjudging how the other side will respond, former officials and policy analysts said.
That potential for misunderstanding and over-confidence makes the Trump administration’s incoherent statements on the South China Sea all the more worrisome — and dangerous.
At the Pentagon, the unpredictable and bellicose talk has rattled some senior officers. Top commanders had expected the new president to loosen constraints on military operations across the board, including allowing more frequent and more aggressive naval and air patrols in the South China Sea — something U.S. Pacific Command had long requested of the Obama White House. Still, military leaders are not keen on provoking tensions with China or threatening a naval blockade that Washington won’t be ready to enforce.
The White House’s remarks on the South China Sea have sounded “disorganized and provocative,” Medeiros said, warning that the ad hoc and confused policies could spark a clash.
“That’s not an issue where you want to have a lack of clarity,” said Medeiros, now with the Eurasia Group.
Even as it seeks to squeeze China, the Trump administration has lost crucial economic and diplomatic leverage in the region by abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation trade pact with strong support among Asian allies and partners. It offered a counterbalance to Beijing’s economic heft, particularly among countries with rival claims in the South China Sea.
But Trump’s pullout has diminished U.S. credibility from Hanoi to Tokyo, and China is trying to fill the void, eagerly expanding its own trade grouping to attract countries like Japan and Malaysia. For Asian states gauging U.S. power, “their measuring stick isn’t just one or two aircraft carriers, it’s trade flows,” the congressional staffer said.
That, plus the threats to jettison the “One China” policy, risks leaving the Trump administration isolated. Allies are dismayed by the administration’s embrace of protectionism, its aggressive and improvised rhetoric toward China, and the wide gap between the president’s views and those of his Cabinet, said diplomats and former officials. As a result, long-established allies are looking at exploring other trade and diplomatic options if the U.S. loses its status as a reliable partner.
While critics portray the Trump team as long on attitude and short on policy, some former officials cautioned that it is too early to draw any conclusions about the Trump’s administration’s initial forays on China, as the new team entered office only a week ago
“I wouldn’t read too much into what we’ve heard so far on the South China Sea. These are predispositions, not policy proposals,” said Ely Ratner, the former deputy national security advisor to ex-vice president Joe Biden. He cheered plans by Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, to travel to South Korea and Japan on his first foreign trip as Pentagon chief, and urged Vice President Mike Pence to tour Asia soon to reinforce ties to allies.
While Tokyo and other foreign capitals have been reassured somewhat by officials named or expected to serve in the Trump administration on Asia policy, the president’s unpredictable tweets and impulsive policy making are a source of anxiety.
Some Japanese companies, experts said, bewildered by Trump’s Twitter diplomacy, have even hired analysts to study the president’s tweets to try and glean where the administration might be headed in Asia.
Photo credit: ALEX WONG/Getty Images
Like this article? Read an unlimited number of articles, plus access to our entire 47-year printed archive, the FP App, and the Digital Magazine when you subscribe to FP Premium for just 99 cents!