In the run-up to U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration, advocates of a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy toward China unleashed a barrage of hawkish commentaries and proposals. Much commentary focused on Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea. What are the likely effects on U.S.-China ties?

This deluge was stimulated by statements by Trump and his nominees for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson and secretary of defense, James Mattis. Trump’s actions and words questioned the U.S.-China fundamental agreement on a “One-China” policy. Tillerson declared that China’s access to the South China Sea features it has built upon will not be “allowed”. Mattis opined that China’s behavior in the South China Sea was part of “a mounting assault on global stability” In his view China is challenging the U.S.-built and maintained regional order.

Meanwhile former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, once considered by Trump for secretary of state and perhaps still a Trump adviser, suggested that the U.S. marines stationed in Okinawa be transferred to Taiwan to “enhance the U.S.’ East Asia military posture”.

These statements by incoming government leaders and influence peddlers provided an opportunity for America’s China hawks to promote their views. Gordon Chang, a long-time critic of the Chinese Communist Party, said the comments were “striking” and that he hoped they indicated a fundamental change in American foreign policy toward China. “We’ve empowered the worst elements of the Chinese political system by showing them that aggression works”. As a “solution” he called for stronger deterrence.

Writing before these statements were made, Ross Babbage of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said the U.S., Japan and Australia must “thwart Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea and deter further Chinese adventurism.”

Focusing on U.S. tactics in the Trump era, two academics from the Naval War College suggested that America should revive its past “daring-do” and “recognize that close quarters encounters, cat and mouse games between submarines and opposing fleets, and even deliberate collisions” could become routine elements of the U.S.-China rivalry”.

As a prime example of where this extremism may lead, James Kraska also of the Naval War College has attempted to provide a legal rationale for a “blockade.” His essay in Lawfare is reminiscent of the George W. Bush era’s legal memos justifying torture — convoluted, conniving and dangerous.

In general, naval blockades are acts of war under international law. A country can only legally use a blockade if it is acting in individual or collective self-defense — the standard requirements for going to war — or if the U.N. Security Council has proclaimed the action necessary to maintain international peace.

Nevertheless, Kraska argues that the U.S. can lawfully “challenge China’s rights to access its artificial islands (sic) as a lawful countermeasure in international law to induce China to comply with its obligations of the Law of the Sea Convention and customary international law”.

In particular Kraska says that “China does not respect UNCLOS rules governing high seas freedom of navigation and overflight of military vessels and aircraft in its EEZ.” He urges the U.S. to withdraw recognition of China’s rights under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea to navigate freely throughout the South China Sea to the extent that Beijing does not respect reciprocal rights.

But Kraska neglects to mention that the U.S. is not a party to UNCLOS. As a non-party to this “package deal,” the U.S. has little credibility and standing in urging adherence to particular parts of it and unilaterally trying to enforce them. Moreover relevant customary international law is in dispute.

According to Kraska such countermeasures flow from the customary international law of state responsibility as reflected in the International Law Commission’s “Article on State Responsibility.” But this article states that “countermeasures must be proportionate and not involve violation of preemptory norms.” He argues further that such action may be a lawful measure short of coercion.” But how can the U.S. deny China’s access to its claimed features “short of coercion,” direct or indirect?

Should this policy apply only to China or throughout the world? In Asia alone, many countries have legal regimes that limit U.S. military activities including Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. And as Sourabh Gupta of the Institute for China-America Studies poses: “What if other states enact a similar policy, i.e., they agree to respect U.S. claims only if the U.S. respects their claims?”

Some have argued that the comments by incoming U.S. government leaders should not be taken literally. According to Reuters, a Trump transition adviser said that Tillerson did not mean to suggest the new administration would impose a naval blockade. Michael Green, a former director for Asia at the National Security Council and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “What I think he (Tillerson) meant was that we will not let the Chinese use these new air bases on those reclaimed islands to establish dominance.”

But none of these incoming leaders’ statements — including Tillerson’s — have been clarified or “walked-back” and another official authorized to speak on behalf of the transition team said Tillerson “did not misspeak.” That person also said various military enhancements were under consideration, such as basing a second aircraft carrier in the region; deploying more destroyers, attack submarines and missile defense batteries; expanding or adding new bases in Japan and Australia; and installing “air force long-range strike assets” in South Korea.

Regardless of the exact meaning of the incoming officials’ statements, the damage to the U.S.-China relationship and the stability of the region has already been done. One prominent China analyst said, “The theme of clash of civilizations was becoming increasingly popular in Chinese circles.”

Worse, this renewed U.S. belligerence is building just as China’s President Xi Jinping is coming up for “re-appointment” in October. He is likely to be especially inflexible on these issues in order to ward off criticism from hardliners. Already the Chinese military is calling for China to “be prepared to throw punches” regarding increasing U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes from the sea.

As prominent Australian analyst Hugh White puts it, these words by Trump and Tillerson damage their own credibility by making threats they most likely cannot or will not follow through on. If they do not, they would have made “America look weak, and China look strong.” Then they may be “forced” to take actions that could easily lead to confrontation. Moreover, these statements have unsettled U.S. friends and allies in Asia — particularly those who fear getting caught between two “fighting” elephants.

Most worrying of all, given the context of a possible Thucydian trap (a supposedly “inevitable” conflict between a status-quo power and a rising power), these statements indicate that these incoming officials overestimate U.S. power and resolve — and underestimate those of China. That is how wars start.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China. A much longer version of this article first appeared in IPP Review.

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