Rajan Menon / TomDispatch
Forget those “bad hombres down there” in Mexico that U.S. troops might take out. Ignore the way National Security Adviser Michael Flynn put Iran “on notice” and the new president insisted, that, when it comes to that country, “nothing is off the table.” Instead, focus for a moment on something truly scary: the possibility that Donald Trump’s Washington might slide into an actual war with the planet’s rising superpower, China. No kidding. It could really happen.
Let’s start with silver-maned, stately Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state. Who could deny that the former ExxonMobil CEO has a foreign minister’s bearing? Trump reportedly chose him over neocon firebrand John Bolton partly for that reason. (Among other things, Bolton was mustachioed, something the new president apparently doesn’t care for.) But an august persona can only do so much; it can’t offset a lack of professional diplomatic experience.
That became all-too-apparent during Tillerson’s January 11th confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was asked for his view on the military infrastructure China has been creating on various islands in the South China Sea, the ownership of which other Asian countries, including Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei claim as well. China’s actions, he replied, were “extremely worrisome,” likening them to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, an infraction for which Russia was slapped with economic sanctions.
The then-secretary-of-state-designate — he’s since been confirmed, despite many negative votes — didn’t, however, stop there. Evidently, he wanted to communicate to the Chinese leadership in Beijing that the new administration was already irked beyond measure with them. So he added, “We’re going to have to send China’s leaders a clear signal: that, first, the island building stops and, second, your access to those islands is not going to be allowed.” Functionally, that fell little short of being an announcement of a future act of war, since not allowing “access” to those islands would clearly involve military moves. In what amounted to a there’s-a-new-sheriff-in-town warning, he then doubled down yet again, insisting, slightly incoherently (in the tradition of his new boss) that “the failure of a response has allowed them to just keep pushing the envelope on this.”
All right, so maybe a novice had a bad day. Maybe the secretary-of-state-to-be simply ad-libbed and misspoke… whatever. If so, you might have expected a later clarification from him or from someone on the Trump national security team anyway.
That didn’t happen; instead, that team stuck to its guns. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made no effort to add nuance to, let alone walk back, Tillerson’s remarks. During his first official press briefing on January 23rd, Spicer declared that the United States “is going to make sure we defend our interests there” — in the South China Sea, that is — and that “if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yes, we are going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”
And what of Trump’s own views on the island controversy? Never one to pass up an opportunity for hyperbole, during the presidential campaign he swore that, on those tiny islands, China was building “a military fortress the likes of which the world has not seen.” As it happened, he wasn’t speaking about, say, the forces that Hitler massed for the ill-fated Operation Barbarossa, launched in June 1941 with the aim of crushing the Red Army and the Soviet Union, or those deployed for the June 1944 Normandy landing, which sealed Nazi Germany’s fate. When applied to what China has been up to in the South China Sea, his statement fell instantly into the not-yet-named category of “alternative facts.”
Candidate Trump also let it be known that he wouldn’t allow Beijing to get away with such cheekiness on his watch. Why had the Chinese engaged in military construction on the islands? Trump had a simple answer (as he invariably does): China “has no respect for our president and no respect for our country.” The implication was evident. Things would be different once he settled into the White House and made America great again. Then — it was easy enough to conclude — China had better watch out.
Standard campaign bombast? Well, Trump hasn’t changed his tune a bit since being elected. On December 4th, using (of course!) his Twitter account, he blasted Beijing for having built “a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea.” And it’s safe to assume that he signed off on Spicer’s combative comments as well.
In short, his administration has already drawn a red line — but in the way a petulant child might with a crayon. During and after the campaign he made much of his determination to regain the respect he claims the U.S. has lost in the world, notably from adversaries like China. The danger here is that, in dealing with that country, Trump could, as is typical, make it all about himself, all about “winning,” one of his most beloved words, and disaster might follow.
A military clash between Trump-led America and a China led by President Xi Jinping? Understanding how it might happen requires a brief detour to the place where it’s most likely to occur: the South China Sea. Our first task: to understand China’s position on that body of water and the islands it contains, as well as the nature of Beijing’s military projects there. So brace yourself for some necessary detail.