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Why Rex Tillerson's comments on the South China Sea have Chinese state media up in arms

Saber-rattling from Trump’s secretary of state pick has caused quite a stir.

A newsstand vendor stands behind newspapers, including one with a headline story (foreground) about US President-elect Donald Trump, in Beijing on December 6, 2016. The headline reads 'Trump's inability to keep his mouth shut is stunning'. Donald Trump is a 'diplomatic rookie' who must learn not to cross Beijing on issues like trade and Taiwan, Chinese state media said on December 6, warning America could pay dearly for his naiveté.
GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

Anxiety in China has been mounting for some time over continued provocations from the incoming Trump administration. Now Chinese state-backed media outlets have started sounding the alarm in response to comments by Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state, about taking unprecedented steps against China’s territorial claims in the hotly disputed South China Sea.

"If Trump's diplomatic team shapes future Sino-US ties as it is doing now, the two sides had better prepare for a military clash," said one particularly belligerent editorial in the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper.

During his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, the former ExxonMobil CEO said China’s quest to dominate the South China Sea with an ever-expanding naval presence and construction of artificial islands was “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.”

He also described taking bold and new steps to prevent China from accessing those islands, some of which have runways large enough for jumbo jets and now appear to have anti-aircraft guns and missile defense systems on them.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops,” Tillerson said. “And second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”

Tillerson’s comments represent a dramatic break from current US policy, which is why they are causing serious anxiety in China.

Tillerson offered no clarity on how the US would deny China access to these islands, but it raises the real possibility of a blockade — something that is commonly regarded as an act of war. And China’s state-owned media is making it clear that that is exactly how Beijing would see it.

"Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish," said an editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese state-backed publication.

The chest-beating editorial was unabashed in discussing the possibility of a massive confrontation. "Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories," it said.

Global Times is published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper group of the ruling Communist Party. Its hawkish bravado doesn’t necessarily represent the party’s official line, but ultimately the publication is sanctioned by the state.

And Jessica Chen Weiss, a scholar of Chinese foreign relations and author of a book on Chinese nationalism, says we should take it seriously.

“It’s not just the Global Times but a range of state media in China that are warning against what Tillerson implied, which is a blockade,” Weiss explains. “If the US tries to prevent China from accessing its outposts with a blockade, China is likely to respond with military force.”

There’s a lot at stake for China

The government’s official response has been more restrained. In response to Tillerson’s comments, Lu Kang, spokesperson at China’s foreign ministry, said “China has full right to conduct all lawful activities within its own sovereign zone.”

That’s a typical statement. But Kang refrained from speculating on what would happen if Tillerson were confirmed and successfully shifted US policy to set up some kind of actual blockade, saying he “cannot comment on Mr Tillerson’s personal comments or make a projection on China’s policies … we don’t answer hypothetical questions.”

But the South China Sea is of huge strategic importance to China. More than a third of global maritime traffic passes through it, it has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels, and it provides crucial outposts for projecting military power. The body of water has been a major hot spot for the countries that flank it for centuries, but in the last few years China’s hunger for territory there has grown considerably.

Washington has promised to continuing sending US Navy vessels through the South China Sea and to ignore Beijing’s self-proclaimed no-fly zone there. In practice, though, the US has taken no substantive steps to curtail Beijing’s aggressive land grab in the South China Sea and hasn’t helped enforce an international tribunal’s recent ruling that China’s territorial claims there are illegal.

So what would happen if the US did use ships to set up a blockade?

“At a minimum, China would try to defy the blockade, but it could actually use limited force if it felt sufficiently threatened and wanted to send a signal,” Weiss says. “It would all depend on the details on the water, which are hard to glean from one sentence in Tillerson's remarks.”

Tillerson hasn’t yet been confirmed, nor is it clear that if he were to be confirmed, he would continue to advocate for that exact policy once he takes the post. But it’s worth noting that he does seem to have a bit of a history of pushing China’s buttons. Under his watch, ExxonMobil was unusually bold when it went exploring for new business in the South China Sea. As the Financial Times reports:

“When Mr Tillerson was chief executive of ExxonMobil, it was one of the few large international oil and gas groups willing to explore alongside Vietnam in waters also claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea. Others pulled out of possible collaborations with the Vietnamese in these contested waters, after coming under pressure from Beijing.”

That kind of background may make Tillerson more willing to challenge China than would someone with no experience testing Beijing.

But the Chinese government has little reason to back down in such a stand-off. For them, it’s not just about foreign policy matter — but also a question of domestic survival.

“Even regular US Freedom of Navigation patrols near the artificial islands exposed the Chinese government to popular criticism for not defending Chinese interests staunchly enough,” Weiss says. “A blockade would likely be seen as a more serious challenge to Chinese sovereignty, likely putting nationalist pressure on Xi Jinping from the public.”

The Chinese Communist Party needs to make sure it looks tough in order to ward off the possibility of major discontent — or even unrest — at home. It would suffer political losses for appearing to cave to a bully. If the Trump administration continues to engage in saber-rattling, expect China to continue to come back just as hard.