Trump Administration Causes Pacific Peril
Recently-confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, despite his ties to oil giant Exxon, represents one of the more moderate voices in a cabinet otherwise prone to hyperbole. Tillerson’s strategic vision, especially in East Asia, insists, however, upon unnecessary risks and offers little hope of reward for the United States or the region at large.
During his confirmation hearings, Tillerson responded to inquiries regarding China’s aggressive military buildup in the South China Sea by stating that he would block Chinese access to its installations in the oceanic region. For years, China has quietly constructed a series of artificial islands in disputed international waters in an effort to assert its claims of sovereignty.
This region hosts the world’s largest shipping lane, as well as rich deposits of natural gas and other fuels. Furthermore, it falls within the Nine-Dash Line, a Communist Party map which asserts Chinese dominion over much of the South China Sea, making the issue a matter of nationalism as well. The Hague tribunal ruled last year against China in favor of the Philippines in just one of many territorial disputes over the region, rendering China’s claims meaningless. However, these international rulings, dismissed by Beijing, offer little solace in the face of the military situation in the region.
International law aside, the Pacific’s geopolitics has changed dramatically. Although the United States has enjoyed hegemonic supremacy in the region since the end of World War II, this situation no longer accurately represents the military balance in the area. Diplomatic spats have plagued long standing alliances, such as President Trump’s indecorous phone call to the Australian Prime Minister. Additionally, America withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an economic free-trade zone which would have covered 40 percent of global GDP. This has given a rising China increased potential to assert influence upon its neighbors.
Beyond the diplomatic disasters currently unfolding, however, Tillerson’s plan to deny China access to its islands presents another, much graver threat. This presents a scenario in which both the United States and China will feasibly claim to have international law on their side. China could claim to defend its sovereign territory, while the US could claim to defend international freedom of navigation. While under normal circumstances, a crisis between the United States and China would not likely boil over into a shooting war, Tillerson poses a threat to the countries’ traditional understanding.
Should a crisis erupt over trade disputes, the U.S. Pacific fleet maintains a supremacy in the region. In a conventional conflict, American naval forces have a greater range to engage Chinese targets.The Pacific fleet could fire first upon Chinese military installations in the South China Sea, eliminate them, and then move in closer to blockade Chinese military operations. However, if American ships enter within shooting range of Chinese missile stations throughout the South China Sea, China could launch a devastating first strike against American aircraft carriers.
Any of these situations could provoke a costly, long, and uncertain war. This second scenario is precisely the one Tillerson suggests is the best way forward. Tillerson intends to try to bluff China, precipitating a first-strike incentive for Beijing. While entirely possible that this poorly-played hand of poker will materialize into Chinese retreat in the South China Sea, this is an unlikely prospect at best. The U.S. should engage China diplomatically and economically to counter its zealous claims in the region. A military blockade risks igniting war between the world’s largest two economies, with little to no chance of China backing down.
Austin is a Sophomore in the School of Foreign Service, studying International Security. When not reading the news or analysis, he can often be found bothering his friends with his thoughts on the above, singing with the Concert Choir, directing a show with Mask and Bauble, or pontificating during a Philodemic Society debate.