With Donald Trump’s recent transition into the presidency behind us, he and his administration are facing their first political stare-down with economic rival and frequent Donald Trump talking point: China.

On Monday, Sean Spicer, new White House Press Secretary, made a clear statement regarding the Trump administration’s stance on China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.  When asked about China’s development and militarization of man-made islands within the waterway, Spicer did not mince words.

“I think the US is going to make sure we protect our interests there,” Spicer said. “If those islands are, in fact, in international waters and not part of China proper, yeah, we’ll make sure we defend international interests from being taken over by one country.”

His response closely echoes that of Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, who drew a hard-line during his confirmation hearing when he compared China’s island building to Russia’s 2014 military annexation of Crimea – an act denounced by NATO that continues to prompt a militarization of the border between Russia and Eastern Europe.

“The island building in the South China Sea itself in many respects in my view is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea,” he said, calling it the “taking of territory others have laid claim to.”  He went on to say that it was a lack of a “vigorous response” from the United States that “has allowed them to keep pushing the envelope on this.”

A foreign ministry spokeswoman for the Chinese government, Hua Chunying, fired back at Trump’s team in a regular press briefing on Tuesday, effectively telling America to mind its own business.

“The United States is not a party to the South China Sea dispute,” she told reporters.  “We urge the United States to respect the facts, speak and act cautiously to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea.”

She continued, “Our actions in the South China Sea are reasonable and fair. No matter what changes happen in other countries, what they say or what they want to do, China’s resolve to protect its sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea will not change.”

China has laid claim to the majority of the South China Sea, a waterway that sees the shipping of between four and five trillion dollars worth of annual commerce and is believed to contain as much as seven billion barrels of oil and nine hundred trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  Nearly every other nation in the region, including Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei also claim ownership of portions of the sea.  A number of these claims overlap with the large swaths of the region China has declared its own, and China’s rapidly developing military represents the biggest dog in the proverbial fight, save for America’s presence and continued emphasis on protecting the interests of its allies.

As a means to help secure China’s expanding claim over the waterway, they have begun building man-made islands and installing armaments and military air strips in areas traditionally seen as international waters.  China’s islands and military installations are, in turn, seen as the nation encroaching on portions of the South China Sea they have no rightful claim over – and where other nations should be able to operate freely.

Trump’s team has made repeated statements denouncing this act.  Rex Tillerson, again at his confirmation hearing, stated, “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands is not going to be allowed,” but actually enforcing such an embargo could prove difficult and extremely dangerous, both for the international economy and for relations between the United States and China.  Some have gone so far as to suggest such an attempt could be seen as a hostile military act.

“A blockade – which is what would be required to actually bar access – is an act of war,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, a Washington-based South China Sea expert at the Center for a New American Security, said.

“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 destabilizing to the relationship with China, invite crises, and convince the rest of the world that the United States is an unreliable partner.”

Dean Cheng from the conservative leaning Heritage Foundation and an expert in Chinese relations, doesn’t paint such a dire picture of the situation, saying instead that neither Spicer nor Tillerson were specific regarding what actions could or would be taken against China – leaving the door open for “economic measures” rather than military ones.

Despite political rhetoric, it goes without saying that the new President is likely not looking for a fight with China, but is working to establish a firm foundation for future negotiations regarding China’s presence in the South China Sea as well as its trade agreements with the United States.  Hopefully, growing hostility between the two governments will result only in hardline financial negotiations around a conference table – because although Mr. Trump may have extensive negotiating experience, his dealings rarely involved nuclear capable military confrontations if they went south – and only a week into his presidency, the entire world is still waiting to find out if he’s the real deal.


Image courtesy of the Associated Press