At his first official news briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the United States would protect its interests in the South China Sea and “defend international territories from being taken over by one country.” The remarks were in response to a question about earlier statements made by Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson at his confirmation hearing that the U.S. would not allow China access to its artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Spicer’s comments leave the question of how, or whether, the U.S. will respond to China in the Spratly Islands going forward ambiguous and somewhat confused. Nonetheless, anticipation that the Trump administration’s policies in the South China Sea might significantly raise tensions with China has both U.S. and Chinese observers speculating about the prospect of a military clash.

In considering arguments about the heightened risk of conflict today, it’s worth revisiting some history. Issues that seem like unique flashpoints today have actually simmered for decades but rarely escalated. However, careless policies could push the U.S. and China into a confrontation that otherwise might just keep simmering.

The current period of sustained tension in the South China Sea began in earnest when China submitted its “nine-dash line” map to the United Nations in 2009, precipitating more public, if still ambiguous, Chinese claims of maritime rights. Regional tension and public concern in the U.S. accelerated to current levels when China began its extraordinary island-building efforts and subsequent construction of dual-use port and airfield facilities in 2013. But the South China Sea disputes stretch back almost to the end of World War II. And for all the changes “on the ground” in the past few years, much has remained the same, while some “new” tactics have been recycled from decades ago.

While we tend to think that the South China Sea has only gained major public attention in the U.S. over the past few years, a New York Times Magazine feature by Nicholas Kristoff from 1995 postulated that “The Real China Threat” wasn’t a conflict over Taiwan, but in the South China Sea, whose “palm-lined islets … may be the site of Asia’s next war.” The piece even highlighted the prospect of China cutting off the vital shipping lanes in the South China Sea as a possible flashpoint, a threat commonly cited today. Ultimately though, Kristoff expressed confidence that China was not an expansionist power beyond the muddled claims in the South China Sea, and that crises could be averted through a combination of direct diplomacy, leveraging allies and partners, and firm responses to Chinese transgressions against its pledges.

Even further back, Stars and Stripes Asia-Pacific reporter Erik Slavin recently came across a declassified CIA intelligence summary from 1958 that included analysis of Chinese activity in the Spratly Islands. The report was prompted by the imminent dispatch of 200 Chinese fishing vessels to the Spratly Islands to establish fishing grounds and build “administrative, supply and navigation facilities” on the islands. These tactics are familiar in the South China Sea today, where China presses its claims in the “gray zone” below thresholds for violent conflict. Today China’s coast guard and the deputized fishermen in China’s para-military Maritime Militias harass other countries’ fishing and law enforcement vessels under the auspices of providing “maritime rights protection” and asserting Chinese maritime sovereignty. China has also altered the geographic facts on the ground by building up a presence on artificially expanded islands under the pretense of civil use.

Some details from earlier analyses seem quaint when measured against the situation today. In 1958 the CIA recognized that the Spratly Islands occupied a strategic position in the South China Sea, but that their military value was minimal since none were large enough to construct airfields or other facilities. Thus in 1995, Kristoff articulated concern about a “permanent fortress” that China built on Mischief Reef earlier in the year. Calling that tiny structure a “fortress” now sounds absurd in light of the 1,200 hectares of artificial land that it has built up on reefs in the Spratlys, including Mischief Reef, since 2014. Those artificial islands now host 3,000-meter runways, hardened aircraft facilities and long-range radar networks.

But even though China’s most concerted military modernization efforts did not begin until after the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, which was still brewing when Kristoff wrote his article, today’s strategic circumstances weren’t unforeseen. He also reported that war game simulations the CIA and the U.S. Naval War College conducted of theoretical conflicts with China in 2005 and 2010 ended with China victorious.

Meanwhile, China’s military today has probably advanced beyond even the expectations of those mid-’90s assessments, and its bases in the Spratlys now have the capacity to support significant power projection capabilities like fighter jets and long-range missiles far beyond anything conceived in 1958. But rather than attempt a fait accompli that might risk a military clash, China has not deployed such systems to its Spratly bases yet. For now, it has only deployed short-range anti-aircraft guns and missile defense systems under the auspices of being “necessary defense facilities.”

Many analysts asserted these defenses violated a Chinese pledge not to militarize the Spratly Islands. I disagreed, because official Chinese statements had consistently carved out a “necessary defense” exception to its pledge, however expansive an interpretation the U.S. may have wanted to assert. But wherever one lands on the semantics of the term “militarization,” those weapons’ short ranges make them of little military significance and ultimately do not substantially change the regional situation.

The irony of Tillerson and Spicer’s assertions about possibly blocking Chinese access to its occupied islands is that it could provide China a plausible pretext under its “necessary defense” exception to deploy true power projection assets. Here Kristoff’s 20-year old advice seems to apply. The U.S. should be firm in holding China to its pledges, and willing to accept some risk to prevent China from truly militarizing the Spratlys in an operationally meaningful way. But without more clarity on how it intends to prevent that militarization, the Trump administration’s proposed South China Sea policies might give China an excuse to do it even faster.

Steven Stashwick is a writer and analyst who spent 10 years on active duty as a U.S. naval officer with multiple deployments to the Western Pacific. © 2017, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency

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