Intentionally or Not Tillerson Has Put Down a Marker
Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, stirred up the South China Sea, along with China, Asia, and the entire globe with this statement: We have to send China a clear signal that the island building stops and second your access to those islands is not allowed.
It was a bit amusing to see the China hawks from both Republican and Democratic Parties, who have vociferously condemned the Obama administration for its deficiencies of sack in standing up to the PRC in the South China Sea, shrinking back in dismay at this one and deploying their own temporizing arguments.
But the world can relax. Kinda.
Tillerson’s role in the Trump administration is to reassure, not deliver bowel-loosening terror to America’s enemies. His overall approach to Asia appears sober and judicious. Tillerson’s statement looks like a flub, a mis-statement by a person of a certain age grimly but gamely slogging through the fifth hour of Congressional hearings.
The entire passage indicates he had been briefed but had not fully internalized the mind-glazing minutiae of the South China Sea dispute. In some areas he seemed to be winging it based on what the astute business executive picks up about China while flipping through Forbes in his limo on the way to the office tower.
Here’s the transcript:
We have to step back and look at all of China’s activities…Island building in the South China Sea, the declaration of control of airspace in waters over the Senkaku Islands with Japan. Both of these are illegal actions. They are taking territory or control or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s. The island building in the South China Sea itself in many respects in my view, building islands and putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea, it’s the taking of territories others lay claim to. The US has never taken a side in the issues but what we have advocated for international processes dealing with that and China should respect those international processes…I think again the failure after response has allowed them tojust keep pushing the envelope on this. So we find we are where we are and we have to deal with it. The way we’ve got to deal with it is we’ve got to show back up in the region with traditional allies in Southeast Asia. And I think using existing structures to begin the re-engagement use ASEAN which most members of ASEAN are affected by this. You have got $5 trillion of economic trade going through those water every day. This is a threat to the total economy if China is allowed to somehow dictate passage through these waters. This is an issue of great importance for many.
And would you support a more aggressive posture in the South China Sea?
We going to have to send China a clear signal that first the island building stops and second your access to those islands is not allowed.
Perhaps Tillerson was trying to say We have to send China a clear signal that the island building stops and second your military access to those islands is not allowed.
That would be roughly in line with current understandings between the PRC and the US, namely that the PRC will lay off the island building and not turn these islands into offensive bastions. The PRC has militarized these islands to the extent that they are making some provisions for their defense, in part thanks to the fact that Ash Carter, with his usual over-reach, devoted the last round of US-Philippine military exercises to showy island-assault drills.
Perhaps one of several slips of the tongue by Tillerson just in that one passage.
First of all $5 trillion per day. No. The authorized soundbite is $5 trillion a year. And that’s pure BS, as I have documented ad nauseum. The South China Sea is an indispensable strategic waterway for only one country, unsurprisingly the country whose name is on the label: China.
A big clanger is that the PRC has not asserted control of airspace over the Senkakus. They’ve declared it to be part of their Air Defense Identification Zone, which is not a declaration of sovereign territorial airspace. It’s simply a declaration that aircraft that fly in that airspace file flight plans and announce themselves to Chinese air traffic control. The US military and all Japanese aircraft ignore the ADIZ.
Secondly, there is a Crimea-type situation in the South China Sea, but it doesn’t relate to the Spratlys where the island-building is going on. It relates to the Paracels, a clutch of islands near the Chinese mainland that the PRC seized from its South Vietnamese garrison in 1974 and has been rather massively developed by the PRC since then with military and increasingly civilian installations. Although (North) Vietnam at one time stated the seizure was OK, it’s still disputed territory, and the United States agrees. Spoiler: it’s never going back to Vietnam.
The Spratleys are dotted with islands and atolls seized by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. All of these occupations are disputed but none of them involve conquest and none of them are illegal—except one, which I’ll get to later.
The general situation is that the disputed sovereignty of uninhabited genuine landforms in the ocean—high tide elevations—can only be agreed by mutual consent of the claiming parties. If two or more countries dispute sovereignty over a landform, the dispute simply festers. The United States’ policy is not to take sides. The most noteworthy example is the Senkakus: the United States affirms they are covered by the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, but also accepts that their sovereignty is disputed between China and Japan.
Most of the PRC island claims in the Spratlys are not seriously disputed. And the Chinese can do pretty much whatever they want on those islands, including terraforming them into viable civil outposts and even military colonies. Not illegal, whatever Mr. Tillerson says.
The famous UNCLOS arbitration result did not concern the sovereignty of those islands. It is a maritime judgment that rejected China’s infamous Nine Dash Line claiming the entire SCS, islands and all, for China; it affirmed the Exclusive Economic Zone boundaries for the Philippines; and, in the process, declared that the man-made islands—whoever they belonged to i.e. without trying to rule on sovereignty—would only be entitled to the most minimal territorial waters and no exclusive economic zone.
The most contentious dispute concerns Scarborough Shoal, an unterraformed high tide elevation inside the Philippine EEZ whose sovereignty is claimed by both the PRC and the Philippines. Again, ongoing sovereignty dispute, no US position. There’s no permanent land occupation, just continual jockeying of PRC and Philippine government and fishing vessels. The UNCLOS Arbitral Commission decided the two countries should share the fisheries, which they are now apparently doing.
The one illegal island in the mix is Mischief Reef. Mischief Reef is built on a Low Tide Elevation, meaning it is under water at high tide. No matter how much the PRC builds on that reef, it doesn’t count as an island. It’s a structure on the seabed. The seabed, in this case, falls within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines. Under UNCLOS, the Philippines has the right under international law to demand that the PRC vacate the structure, or maybe pay rent on it. Billions of dollars of rent. The Philippines is thinking about it but, under President Rodrigo Duterte, is pursuing engagement with the PRC instead.
And the Philippines can’t rely on US backing if it tries to forcibly evict the PRC from Mischief Reef. US obligations under the defense treaty don’t include joining in tussles over EEZ interests.
Long story short: the only way the United States would have legal standing in the South China Sea island disputes would be to ally with Vietnam in a war of reconquest of the Paracels, or by modifying or creatively interpreting its defense treaty with the Philippines to support an attack on Mischief Reef.
Neither Vietnam nor the Philippines are currently interested.
Don’t draw the conclusion that, just because the United States doesn’t have a clear legal standing in the South China Sea, it can’t take military action.
The US can simply unilaterally declare that PRC activities in the South China Sea threaten, directly or indirectly, the security of the United States, and then do whatever it wants to do.
The Trump administration is committed to a more antagonistic policy vis a vis China in order to bolster Trump and American prestige in the region, the US Navy in particular has been frustrated with Obama administration restraint and, at the bottom of it all, there is US confidence, misplaced or otherwise, that the PRC is a paper tiger that can be safely kicked in the behind without worrying overmuch about the military consequences.
A thoroughgoing naval and air blockade of the man-made islands in the Spratlys would be, to put it mildly, a pretty big step. I think the PRC would be compelled to oppose it, collect a few martyrs, and then respond asymmetrically but massively. And the United States would not collect a lot of gratitude from the ASEAN states for tipping the region into a regional war.
And it would be…illegal, an obstruction of marine and air navigation, the freedom of the seas and skies and whatnot we’re always going on about.
But, intentionally or not, Tillerson has put down a marker. Not following through exposes the Trump administration to accusations of the same sort of timorousness that have dogged the Obama administration.
So I expect the Trump administration and the US Navy will turn their attention to some kind of demonstration in the South China Sea. Maybe not something that lights off World War III, maybe a one-off stop of a “suspicious” vessel, maybe delivering a spanking to the next PLAN vessel that tries to snatch a US drone, in any event a cathartic confrontation beyond the impotent FONOPS—Freedom of Navigation operations adored by think tank planners--that will gratify the US Navy and put the PRC on notice that the United States is in the SCS to escalate.
Peter Lee, Newsbud Senior Analyst & Commentator, has been involved in East Asian affairs since 1979, first as a businessman and then as a writer. He has been writing on China with a focus on US policy since 2005. Mr. Lee’s work has appeared at Asia Times, CounterPunch, Japan Focus: The Asia Pacific Journal, and the South China Morning Post. He is the proprietor of the China Matters blog.