Background Briefing: South China Sea: Tillerson Call to Arms, by Carlyle A. Thayer, 12 January, 2017.

The Background Briefing has been reproduced below.

Question

Rex Tillerson stated before the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, “We’re 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.”

We request your assessment of the following:

  • Do you think it is feasible for the U.S. to try to prevent China from accessing the islands, and if so, how do you think China would respond?
  • And what other options does the U.S. have in terms of taking tougher action in the South China Sea?

ANSWER

Tillerson is partly echoing a Trump tweet a while back and taking things a step further. This should provoke a counter barrage from Chinese media threatening all sorts of push back.

Under international law two of the Chinese-occupied features that host 3 kilometre long runways are low-tide elevations and, according to the Arbitral Tribunal that heard the Philippines’ claim against China, “are not subject to appropriation.” In other words, they belong to the Philippines. If “possession is nine tenths of the law” China is an immoveable position. The U.S. will find no support from the Philippines for its actions; condemnation is more likely.

Tillerson’s proposal would provoke a serious confrontation that could quickly develop into armed conflict. China is poised to emplace anti air and surface to surface missiles on the features it occupies. It can put 25 jet fighters on each of three airfields it has built if it wishes. The U.S. Navy could see itself confronting fishing boats, maritime militia, Coast Guard and Chinese navy ships.

For the U.S. to do what Tillerson says would be a major operation on a par with the Cuban missile crisis and the naval quarantine that President John Kennedy imposed.

The one option the U.S. has is to send task forces through the Spratly islands on a regular basis, and sail close to Chinese-occupied rocks. China hasn’t declared base lines or any 12 nautical mile territorial sea in the Spratlys. Up to now the U.S. has shown inordinate respect for a fictional maritime zone – the 12 nautical miles territorial sea – that China hasn’t declared. In China’s eyes the waters around the  Spratly are Chinese waters and the entire area is a “military alert (or security) zone.”

U.S. actions should be focused of pressuring China to bring its claims into line with international law and comply with the award by the Arbitral Tribunal.

It is time for some tough U.S. action but at the moment Xi Jinping seems to be all “sweetness and light” in trying to arrange a meeting with Donald Trump at the Davos Summit.

Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: Tillerson Call to Arms,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, January 12, 2017.

All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer).

Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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