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The new Trump administration made clear recently it would prevent the People’s Republic of China from “seizing” international territory vis-à-vis its man-made islands in the South China Sea (SCS). At a press briefing on January 23rd, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer echoed previous comments made by incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at one of his earlier confirmation hearings, that the United States would defend its interests in the SCS. At Monday’s press conference, Spicer continued.
“If those islands are, in fact, in international waters and not part of China proper, yeah, we’ll make sure we defend international interests from being taken over by one country,” he said.
Surely Press Secretary Spicer is aware that China, in fact, built those islands in international waters illegally; and surely the administration is aware that a United Nations tribunal ruled against China in July 2016 in a lawsuit over the islands filed by plaintiff nation, the Philippines. The incoming Secretary of State too must certainly be aware that Beijing itself has signaled its intention to protect its “sovereignty” over those islands to the point of armed hostilities: most are now equipped with surface-to-air missile batteries and military radar arrays, and they aren’t just for show.
Ergo and in light of Monday’s press conference, both sides must now be aware that 2017 just might be the year that Asia’s Cauldron comes to the boiling point. The question is, is the Trump Administration ready to handle it?
Thus far, the South China Sea is the flashpoint of the 21st century for near-peer major power hostilities, and one that China watchers both in and outside the U.S. Intelligence Community have warned against for years. Whereas mid-90’s to 2000’s Chinese military assessments put the Taiwan strait squarely at the center of a future PRC-U.S. conflict, the war drums have since steadily beat further south and east of the tiny self-ruled island as atoll reclamation has exponentially accelerated into island fortifications from the early 2010’s to today.
Beijing has had good, strategic reasoning behind coveting control of the SCS. At stake is $5 trillion a year in global trade along SCS-centric shipping routes, underwater oil and gas deposits, rich fishing grounds, and above all, power projection. It was for this reason that the Obama administration announced the “Pivot to the Pacific” in 2011 and began formulating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, hoping to curtail Chinese military and financial influence in the region.
Chinese commitment to dominating the SCS preceded the U.S.’ heightened attention to the region and has met it measure-for-measure ever since. People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) doctrine has long asserted a first island chain strategy (containing Taiwan) and a second island chain strategy (controlling the arc from Japan, to the Philippines, to Indonesia) aimed at allowing the PLAN to operate in the SCS without fear of foreign (read: American) intervention. The reclamation and subsequent militarization of those artificial SCS islands has done nothing to assuage international fears of Chinese naval ambitions, and instead has oft been cited in policy circles as the central evidence supporting the Expansionist, China-as-Hegemon thesis. The reality facing the Trump Administration now is that the SCS is to the PRC today what the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico was to the United States in the 19th Century. In short, they are indispensable for future power projection and security, and in a word: nonnegotiable.
If President Trump, Secretary Tillerson, et al are truly committed to ensuring that the international waters surrounding those Chinese-built artificial islands in the SCS remain international, then the world may well be witnessing the palpable possibility of the first war of the Trump Administration. Conflict between the United States and the PRC over those islands would be far more immediate and consequential than any of the ideas and possible policy shifts telegraphed to the American public during the Trump Campaign, and likely larger than any of the moves already made in the Administration’s opening week.
The incoming team of Presidential appointees counts among its ranks a number of exceptionally accomplished military leaders fully capable of carrying out their wartime mission regardless of time, location, or enemy. Yet even still, if it is a new war we must fight against an adversary so advanced, then one cannot help but sense the urgency of synchronizing the full spectrum of state power (military, diplomatic, civil, etc.) around the fledgling administration. President Trump is loath to detail military plans publicly or in advance, so it just may be that with only a hint of irony, the U.S. DoD prepares for war with Beijing by following the sage advice of China’s own military philosopher, Sun Tzu: “let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
Jay Huwieler is an Intelligence Analyst and Cyber Security expert serving a variety of customers across the U.S. Intelligence Community. Prior to serving in the U.S. Army as an Airborne Chinese Linguist, Jay was an ESL Teacher in South Korea, a high school English instructor in Arkansas, and a descriptive linguist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, U.K. His monthly blog covers developments in Foreign Affairs, Security, and Tech, analyzing how all three converge to shape emerging global trends and policies. For more, visit www.Huwieler.net or follow him on Twitter @huwieler