The Chinese government has given its most direct warning yet that it will not stand for any U.S. intervention in the South China Seas, after the White House said this week it would act to prevent a “takeover” in the region.
In a press conference in Beijing Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying made it clear that Xi Jinping’s government believes the U.S. has no say over what happens in the disputed waters.
“We urge the United States to respect the facts, speak and act cautiously to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” Hua said. “Our actions in the South China Sea are reasonable and fair. No matter what changes happen in other countries, what they say or what they want to do, China’s resolve to protect its sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea will not change.”
The comments came in response to remarks made by White House press secretary Sean Spicer in a media briefing Monday, when he said the Trump administration would “make sure that we protect our interests.”
Spicer added that if the islands that China claims sovereignty over in the South China Sea are “in international waters and not part of China proper, we’ll make sure we defend international interests from being taken over by another country.” Spicer didn’t expand on how the U.S. would seek to do this.
Harry Krejsa, a research associate focusing on Asia-Pacific security at the Center for a New American Security, told VICE News that the administration’s ambiguity about exactly what they are proposing is major cause of the tension with China.
“Deterrents requires clear signalling and so far they have been pretty unclear about what it is exactly they mean,” Krejsa said, adding that “tremendous ambiguity over how far and how hard you are willing to go can be dangerously destabilizing.”
This week’s comments mark the latest round of back-and-forth between the Trump administration and Beijing, and come a week after controversial comments from Rex Tillerson, who was narrowly backed as the new secretary of state on Monday. The former Exxon Mobil CEO told his Senate confirmation hearing that China’s actions in the disputed waters were similar to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “They are taking territory or control or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s,” Tillerson said.
Unsurprisingly those comments angered Beijing, prompting state-run Chinese newspapers to issue their own warnings to Trump and his administration. The China Daily described Tillerson’s comments as a “mish-mash of naiveté, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices, and unrealistic political fantasies.”
Krejsa said Tillerson may not have intended his comments to be so provocative, but it is hardly surprising that they were interpreted that way. “I’m sure the Trump administration was not threatening war but that sounds like a blockade, which is generally considered to be an act of war.”
Privately, Trump transition officials are said to have briefed analysts in Washington last week that Tillerson did not mean to insinuate that the administration was suggesting a blockade, but Spicer’s comments on Monday about defending U.S. interests in the region appear to have undermined those assertions.
Krejsa said that in order for the U.S. to be able to deter China from more aggressive acts in the South China Sea, it would need a “clear and well articulated foreign policy” which sets out exactly what it would do to prevent China from taking greater control of the region.
The problem is, says Krejsa, “It does not appear that the Trump administration understands what issues are at play or how to clearly articulate what their own principles are in this dispute.”
China claims sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all staking ownership to parts of the territory. China has shored up its claims with island building programs and naval patrols. The area is home to one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world with $4.5 trillion worth of trading passing through it each year. The area also contains notable oil and gas deposits as well as rich fishing grounds.