China may bully its neighbors, but turning foreign territorial disputes into a superpower conflict between nuclear-armed rivals would be a huge mistake

by Conn Hallinan
February 01, 2017
Antiwar.com.

In his Jan. 13 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson made an extraordinary comment concerning China’s activities in the hotly disputed South China Sea.

The United States, he said, must “send a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops,” adding that Beijing’s “access to the those islands is not going to be allowed.”

Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated the threat on Jan. 24.

Sometimes it’s hard to sift the real from the magical in the Trump administration, and bombast appears to be the default strategy of the day. But people should be clear about what would happen if the U.S. actually tries to blockade China from supplying its forces constructing airfields and radar facilities on the Spratly and Paracel islands.

It would be an act of war.

While Beijing’s Foreign Ministry initially reacted cautiously to the comment, Chinese newspapers have been far less diplomatic. The nationalist Global Times warned of a “large-scale war” if the US followed through on its threat, and the China Daily cautioned that a blockade could lead to a “devastating confrontation between China and the US”

Independent observers agree. “It is very difficult to imagine the means by which the United States could prevent China from accessing these artificial islands without provoking some kind of confrontation,” says Rory Medcalf, head of Australia’s National Security College. And such a confrontation, says Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales, “could quickly develop into an armed conflict.”

Last summer, China’s commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Wu Shengli, told US Admiral John Richardson that “we will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands halfway.” Nansha is China’s name for the Spratlys. Two weeks later, Chang Wanquan, China’s Defense Minister, said Beijing is preparing for a “people’s war at sea.”

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