America should prepare itself for a devastating war if it attempts to block Beijing in the South China Sea, state media has warned.
Trump’s pick as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was told to “watch his mouth” by official Chinese media after saying he would seek to deny access to the artificial islands China has built in the South China Sea.
The former ExxonMobil CEO said China’s actions in the region are comparable to Russia’s invasion of Crimea, a comment that that has enraged Beijing and been described as “fighting words”.
If Tillerson followed up on his threats, the state-owned China Daily warned “it would set a course for devastating confrontation between China and the US”.
The Philippines has recently appeared to backtrack on its claims in the South China Sea, despite international rulings in its favour. Election pledges by President Duterte to ride a jet ski to the disputed Spratly Islands have been replaced by an apparent acceptance of China’s occupation of the region.
Yesterday, for example, it was announced that the Philippines was deferring plans to upgrade a runway on Thitu island. The decision to defer upgrades was to avoid “any aggressive action in the West Philippine Sea,” Military chief General Eduardo Ano told a news conference.
Distancing himself from Tillerson’s comments, the Philippine foreign minister said today (Friday, January 12) that any future action by the United States would be its own prerogative, and in its own national interests. Perfecto Yasay said: “They said that they would prevent China from doing or undertaking these kind of activity. If it wants to do that, they have the force to do so, let them do it.”
Recently, we reported how an increasingly confident Chinese navy seized an American submarine drone (see report here and here) and how Russia is also making it presence felt in the region (see here, here and here).
Satellite photos show that China is continuing to build military facilities in the contested waters, and yesterday, possibly in response to Tillerson’s words, Beijing sent a nuclear capable bomber on a sweet over the Spratly Islands.
Under President Obama, Washington has claimed Beijing’s activities in the region threaten freedom of movement through the commercially and strategically vital waters.
However, it has not expressed any opinion on the ownership of the islets, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea. Now, Tillerson’s statements apparently represent a decisive change of direction on the issue.
In an editorial today, China’s Global Times reacted angrily to the potential policy shift. “Unless Washington plans to wage a large scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish,” it said.
The paper also said that Tillerson better “bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories”.
The paper recently reacted with fury to Donald Trump’s phone call to Taiwan, which China regards as an indisputable part of its sovereign territory.
The official reaction to Tillerson’s words was more muted, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang politely urging Washington to mind its own business. “The South China Sea situation has cooled down and we hope non-regional countries can respect the consensus that it is in the fundamental interest of the whole world”.
However, outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry said today that he was confident the next administration would stick to the same peaceful principles on Asian security as the current one, despite Tillerson’s hawkish comments.
Speaking in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, he said he was “confident the next administration will continue to adhere to the same good faith with the policies that I just articulated.”