Chinese state media have already warned the move would require Washington to “wage war.” China believes South China Sea belongs to China.
The comments at a briefing from White House spokesman Sean Spicer signalled a sharp departure from years of cautious U.S. handling of China’s assertive pursuit of territory claims in Asia, just days after Trump took office on Friday.
“The U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” Spicer said when asked if Trump agreed with comments by his Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, on Jan. 11 that China should not be allowed access to islands it has built in the contested South China Sea.
“It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country,” he said.
Tillerson’s remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing prompted Chinese state media to say the United States would need to “wage war” to bar China’s access to the islands where it has built military-length air strips and installed weapons systems.
Tillerson, who was expected to be confirmed as secretary of State on Monday, was asked at the hearing whether he supported a more aggressive posture towards China and said: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
The former Exxon Mobil Corp chairman and chief executive did not elaborate on what might be done to deny China access to the islands.
But analysts said his comments, like those of Spicer, suggested the possibility of U.S. military action, or even a naval blockade, that would risk armed confrontation with China, an increasingly formidable nuclear-armed military power. It is also the world’s second-largest economy and the target of accusations by Trump that it is stealing American jobs.
Spicer declined to elaborate when asked how the United States could enforce such a move against China, except to say: “I think, as we develop further, we’ll have more information on it.”
Military experts said that while the U.S. Navy has extensive capabilities in Asia to stage blockading operations with ships, submarines and planes, any such move against China’s growing naval fleets would risk dangerous escalation.
Aides have said that Trump plans a major naval build-up in East Asia to counter China’s rise.
China’s Foreign Ministry said earlier this month it could not guess what Tillerson meant by his remarks, which came after Trump questioned Washington’s longstanding and highly sensitive “one-China” policy over Taiwan.
Washington-based South China Sea expert Mira Rapp-Hooper at the Center for a New American Security called the threats to bar China’s access in the South China Sea “incredible” and said it had no basis in international law.
“A blockade – which is what would be required to actually bar access – is an act of war,” she added.
“The Trump administration has begun to draw red lines in Asia that they will almost certainly not be able to uphold, but they may nonetheless be very destabilising to the relationship with China, invite crises, and convince the rest of the world that the United States is an unreliable partner.”
Dean Cheng, a China expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Spicer’s remarks showed the South China Sea was an important issue for the Trump administration.