Tillerson Goes Off Half-Cocked on China
Photo Credit: The New Yorker
By Mark J. Valencia

Tillerson Goes Off Half-Cocked on China

Jan. 16, 2017  |     |  0 comments

On January 11, 2017, former Exxon Mobil CEO and now President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was grilled by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding his position on various current international issues. He was pressed by Marco Rubio, Republican of Texas and former candidate for the Republican Party’s Presidential nomination, regarding his view of recent actions by Russia and in particular President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, Syria and cyberspace. Tillerson wisely — some would say evasively — avoided direct answers, repeatedly pleading ignorance and a need for more information.

He should have done the same for questions regarding China’s actions in the South China Sea. Instead he made several intemperate remarks that have alarmed China and the region, including US allies. Most provocatively he said that China’s access to the features it has built up in the South China Sea is not going to be “allowed.” He added that in general, “I think a lot of our troubles today are that we do not enforce — we make commitments, we say are going to do something and then we don’t enforce it”. Given these ill-advised comments and those of Trump’s actions in undercutting the US-China fundamental understanding regarding the status of Taiwan, China will likely think and prepare for the worst.

If the US pursues Tillerson’s position as policy, it will almost certainly mean high tension, instability and conflict in the region. Some would argue that such a “blockade” would be an act of war. Worse, according to Carl Baker of the Pacific Forum, it is not at all clear that the US has the “maritime power to set up a blockade in the South China Sea.” But Tillerson may have already painted himself into a political corner vis-à-vis China. Moreover, if he is confirmed and doesn’t follow through on this statement, he may well be hoisted on his own petard of “we say we are going to do something and then we don’t enforce it.”

China would interpret US attempts at denial of access to its claimed features as a violation of its “core interests” regarding territorial integrity and sovereignty. Yes, the features it has built on are claimed by others. But China’s claim to most of them is as reasonable as that of the others. (Mischief Reef which it has built upon is — according to a Hague Arbitration decision — a low tide elevation and therefore “not subject to appropriation”.) China is not claiming an EEZ or continental shelf from any of these features and in its view, has built up on its own features — just like what other claimants to features in the South China Sea have done, like Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

China’s leadership has essentially staked its support and perhaps thereby its tenure on defending its territorial claims in the South China Sea. It is highly unlikely that China’s leaders would back down now.  Military leaders and nationalists would not “let” them.

Perhaps the Trump administration sees war with China as inevitable and believes that “better now than later” while the US has what it believes is a clear military advantage.

Tillerson also said, “…We have got to show back up in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia.” It appears that Tillerson thinks that US’ Asian allies will flock to its side in case of a violent conflict between the US and China. If he does think so, then he is uninformed, misinformed or wildly unrealistic. First of all, US military blocking of China’s access to its claimed features would be a violation of freedom of navigation, the very illegal act that the US accuses China of contemplating and even doing. It would also essentially be taking a position on the sovereignty claims on which it has heretofore repeatedly claimed to be neutral. Further, it would re-raise the question of “just who is militarizing the South Chinas Sea.” Worse, it would confirm the views of China’s hawks that despite its frequent denials, the US’ goal is to dominate, contain and constrain China.

If Tillerson/Trump really think that “friends and allies” in the region will militarily back the US in a fight with China, they may be sorely and sadly mistaken. Indeed, as Admiral (ret) Michael McDevitt has written, “Any US policy maker who builds a strategy around the assumption that our friends and allies will be with us in a shooting war with China is a fool.”

Yes, some may allow their territory to be used as a staging area for US attacks on China and its forces. However, even this is not a given because it obviously would invite retaliation by China. If China attacks these “friends and allies” then they may do more to help the US, but even that is a “maybe.” Failing a direct attack by China on their forces or territory, perhaps the most that can be counted on is intelligence sharing and moral support.

Japan is famously and understandably finicky when it comes to taking military action abroad, particularly against China. Past leaders of South Korea have made clear they would not permit US forces to operate from South Korea to participate in conflicts elsewhere in northeast Asia. The Philippines under new President Rodrigo Duterte is moving toward a more neutral stance between China and the US.  Despite the 65-year-old US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, it may be hesitant and look for loopholes just as the US did when the Aquino government demanded assurances of military backup in case of its conflict with China in the South China Sea. Now the shoe may be on the other foot. Even Australia has displayed deep political fissures regarding military support for the US in a fight with China. As for “friends” like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, they have much to lose physically and economically by militarily siding with the US against China. In sum, barring direct attack by China on their territory or forces, US strategic planners should not count on the active military help of its Asian “friends and allies.”

Perhaps the Trump administration sees war with China as inevitable and believes that “better now than later” while the US has what it believes is a clear military advantage. If so, it better get its political, strategic and tactical “ducks in a row.” Perhaps that is what the US military is doing by sending the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group to the western Pacific and moving sixteen top-of- the-line F35 Joint Strike Fighters to Japan in their very first overseas deployment.

There is still a chance that Tillerson will realize he has over-reached and “clarify” or walk-back his threat. If not, it seems the die is cast. Hold on to your hat!

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