Does “large-scale war” begin here? Trump’s man blasts China, pledges support for Southeast Asia

Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for America’s next foreign policy chief, launched his bid for the job with explosive statements on the South China Sea that call for a block on China’s access to the disputed waters and islands.

By Holly Reeves

America’s likely next top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, has set the stage for high conflict with China at his nomination hearing saying he would send a “clear signal” about their “illegal actions” in the South China Sea.

American inaction had allowed the situation to develop and, “the way we have got to deal with this is we have got to show back up in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia,” he said. His session also saw him take on Beijing’s economic, trade and North Korea policy.

Following months of speculation on what Trump’s foreign policy might look like the statements from his candidate have sent shockwaves across Asia-Pacific, leaving more questions than answers.

Trump’s man compared China’s actions to Russia’s, saying access to the islands would be blocked

Speaking to the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee Tillerson said China’s island-building on the disputed waters was, “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine. This was not acceptable in his view and, “we are going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”

The practicalities of enforcing such a statement are nowhere near clear, but this strongly suggests American support for an increased military presence in the region, even a blockade physically barring Chinese access to the area. This development comes as a surprise as many had expected foreign policy actions to retract under a more isolationist Trump administration.

The would-be Secretary of State also dived into other areas of Sino-US relations saying, China’s, “economic and trade practices have not always followed its commitments to global agreements.” Furthermore, the US could no longer, “continue to accept empty promises” on efforts to get North Korea to step back from the brink with its nuclear weapons programme.

The Chinese media hit back strongly, saying conflict lay ahead if America tried such bold actions

The reaction from China has been swift, although official diplomatic sources have remained measured as they wait to see what official policy looks like. An early statement from the Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang Lu reiterated that, “non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” were at the core of the Chinese approach.

The “situation has cooled down [in the South China Sea], and we hope non-regional countries can respect this consensus that is in the fundamental interest of the whole world,” he added. It reads as a cool “back off” to Trump and his foreign policy hawks.

Meanwhile, the state-run China Daily, shot back at Tillerson saying his remarks were, “not worth taking seriously because they are a mishmash of naïveté, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices and unrealistic political fantasies.”

“Should he act on them in the real world, it would be disastrous,” the strongly-worded piece continued, warning that, “It would set a course for a devastating confrontation between China and the US.” The Global Times went even further, suggesting the nominee just appeared tough to get the Senate’s agreement to his new job, and threatening “large-scale war” if the US tried to block China from the islands.

China’s leadership will not take American rhetoric for long

Although this may well just be tough talk in this early stage, it is unlikely that President Xi Jinping will accept much public mud-slinging with the new American administration. As he closes the end of his first term, he will be looking to reinforce his position as a strong and able leader, particularly one that defends the prickly issue of Chinese sovereignty and nationalism. His nation would demand it.

It also appears that the policy is poorly thought through. There is no legal basis for such an action by America, making any US moves as illegal as China’s claims on the disputed territory in the first place. Taking this into account we may simply be hearing the early rumbles of Trump’s policy which will be fine-tuned further in the months to come, after all, Tillerson is a newcomer to government and may not yet be well-versed in matters of state.

Supporting this idea are the comments from the more experienced defence secretary nominee, General James Mattis. He said, “The bottom line is the international waters are international waters, and we have got to figure out how do we deal with holding on to the kind of rules that we have made over many years.” But are those rules even relevant anymore? China acknowledged few of them in the first place, and America seems happy to throw the rule book overboard.

ASEAN nations should be cautious about the future

This first glimpse of the new American order is a mixed bag for the ASEAN nations. Some US-leaning nations, such as Singapore, will be comforted that Tillerson has been quick to recognise their importance, and his pledge to come to their support – physically if need be. But even those with close connections must realise the dangerous territory we are now entering.

The language being thrown around seems to speak of a confrontation between two of the world’s most powerful nations, right in Southeast Asia’s backyard. Whether this is exchanging shots or imposing economic disadvantages, any battle between these two would have significant fallout and countries would almost certainly need to declare a side to continue with the development or military support they have been receiving from either of these big two. That is not a decision easily taken, or taken quickly. Like China and the world, we watch and wait to see what America’s new showman leader does next.