Was this a prelude to a major escalation in the South China Sea, or is the Trump administration foreign policy team having trouble articulating itself?
On Monday, new White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the United States would prevent China from taking over territory in international waters in the South China Sea.
His comments were widely interpreted as doubling down on remarks by Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, on Jan. 11 that the United States would not allow China access to islands it has built in the South China Sea, and upon which it has installed weapons systems and built military-length airstrips.
“The U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” Spicer said when asked if President Trump agreed with his nominee.
“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.”
Experts had initially thought Tillerson might have misspoken, but Spicer's remarks appeared to raise the likelihood that the administration was indeed considering blocking China's access to its new islands in the Spratlys...
Mira Rapp-Hooper, a South China Sea expert at the Center for a New American Security, called the threats to bar China's access in the South China Sea “incredible” and told Reuters it had no basis in international law.
“A blockade — which is what would be required to actually bar access — is an act of war,” she added...
There is confusion in foreign policy circles.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was quoted as saying last week that she had heard from some members of the Trump transition team that Tillerson “misspoke” during five hours of Senate testimony, but on Monday she told Reuters that Spicer’s remarks were “worrisome” and more evidence of “confusing and conflicting messages.”
As Chinese media have pointed out, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia also control islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, yet the United States is not demanding they leave the area...
Yet there is another possibility: that Tillerson and Spicer are in fact indirectly referring to concerns about Scarborough Shoal, a partly submerged chain of reefs and rocks close to the Philippines that China seized in 2012.
Sen. John McCain is among those who have warned that China was planning to build a military base on Scarborough Shoal, to form a triangular network when combined with existing bases in the Spratly and the Paracel islands.
The Obama administration, Hayton pointed out, was reported to have told China in 2016 it was prepared to physically deter any attempts to build on the shoal, and had deployed ships and aircraft to the area to back up that threat.
An attempt to stop China building a new island on Scarborough Shoal would imply greater continuity with policy under Obama, and be less confrontational than preventing China’s navy from getting access to existing islands. Indeed, Beijing knows that any attempt to build a new island on the Shoal would be provocative in itself.
“Tillerson may therefore have been simply stating that he wants this strategy to continue — stopping any island-building on Scarborough Shoal by denying construction vessels access to it,” Hayton wrote.
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Is Trump Getting Ready for War in the South China Sea?
Here is the Washington Post trying to figure out the comments coming out of the Trump Administration:
at 8:52 AM