Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Steve Helber/AP

Did Trump’s Team Just Threaten War With China?

Rex Tillerson said the U.S. should threaten to keep China from its new man-made islands. That requires a naval blockade. And that is war.

The incoming Trump administration just drew a red line in the South China Sea that it cannot enforce without going to war with China.

When questioned on the Trump administration’s stance on the South China Sea during his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson said that, “We’re going to have to send China a signal that… your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” The only way to block China’s access to the islands it occupies in the South China Sea would be to enact a naval blockade, which is an act of war.

This is a dangerous and irresponsible policy statement that only has two realistic consequences: enforcement, which means conflict, or backing down, which erodes the already troubled credibility of the incoming administration in Asia. 

Let’s consider those two scenarios: that Tillerson was serious in putting forth this proposal, or that he was being hyperbolic for effect.

If the proposal were serious, it would mark a dramatic shift in U.S. policy and create an immediate crisis with China. China has increasingly built up defenses on the islands it occupies in the South China Sea. It claims these geographic features as sovereign territory, and the Chinese Communist Party believes that issues of sovereignty go to the very legitimacy of its rule.

A blockade would mean that the United States had – according to international law – acted as the aggressor in starting a war. It would scare away U.S. partners and allies in Asia who would rightly fear the destabilizing consequences, and the United States would be going it alone. And if this is a bluff intended to scare China into backing down or negotiating on other issues, it seems highly unlikely to work.

If Tillerson did not intend to make this provocative proposal, the sloppiness has eroded U.S. credibility. In foreign policy, words matter: They send signals to allies and adversaries, who then look to see if those words are followed up with action. While Trump’s outrageous and off the cuff rhetoric and tweeting may not align with this reality, if confirmed, his secretary of state would soon find out the hard way that he and his boss should be careful about what they say.

Drawing this redline without meaning would send China a signal of weakness, and give allies and partners around the world reason to question the credibility of Trump’s foreign policy. All China would have to do is continue sending vessels to its outposts after Jan. 20 to reveal the Trump administration’s redline as an empty threat. And it could embolden China to test other U.S. commitments, such as defending Japan in the East China Sea.

Whether intentional or not, this is the height of irresponsibility and it’s becoming a trend. In December, Mr. Trump broke decades of U.S. policy on Taiwan – and the very linchpin of the normalization of U.S.-China relations over the last 40 years – by talking to Taiwan’s president and then publicly questioning the One China policy. China is unlikely to back down here either, and by escalating so dramatically Trump has backed himself into a corner.

These provocative statements are obscuring serious foreign policy challenges that Trump and Tillerson will have to tackle. 

For years, China has been acting provocatively and aggressively in the South China Sea, including by building up artificial islands with military facilities, restricting freedom of navigation, and bullying the countries of Southeast Asia. The United States and other countries in Asia have been pushing back against China and exacting costs, but China continues to push forward its strategy of asserting its authority in the areas it claims in the South China Sea.  

The United States needs a more robust policy to shape the long-term situation in the South China Sea. There are tough, pragmatic policies the United States can take to do so, such as boosting the maritime security capacities of partners in the region; expanding the pace and scope of freedom of navigation operations and supporting the ability of others to do the same; enhancing U.S. military access in Southeast Asia; and engaging in tough direct talks with China about how to secure a balance of power that protects the interests of all countries.

Instead, Mr. Trump’s team is playing a dangerous game. Tillerson’s proposal weakens U.S. efforts to deter China in the South China Sea. If enacted, it would make conflict more likely.