If the weeks before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration are any indication, the South China Sea could be a potential flashpoint in 2017.


Trump’s secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson voiced a much tougher tone with China at his Senate confirmation hearing, telling U.S. lawmakers that China’s island-building in the disputed waters was illegal and “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.”


“We are 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,” said Tillerson.

Watch: Trump, China and the South China Sea: Will Tensions Grow?


Trump’s secretary of defense nominee, Retired General James Mattis, also signaled grave concerns during his confirmation hearing.


“I think it [the world order] is under the biggest attack since World War II, and that’s from Russia, from terrorist groups and with what China is doing in the South China Sea,” said Mattis.


Their remarks set the tone for a much tougher stand of the new administration in its relations with China.


Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed earlier this month that a group of Chinese warships led by its Liaoning aircraft carrier is testing weapons and equipment in exercises in the South China Sea.


China’s state-run Global Times wrote in an editorial that the drill is an indication the combat capability of Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, “has enhanced and its areas of operation have expanded.”


“The Chinese fleet will cruise to the Eastern Pacific sooner or later,” which would extend to the seas off the West coast of the U.S., said Global Times in the commentary.


And while China has returned an American unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) that was seized last month by a Chinese navy ship, it was seen as a sign of what is to come from an increasingly assertive Beijing in the South China Sea.


That signal is reinforced by China’s ongoing efforts to fortify its man-made islands in the South China Sea.


How Trump decides to push back against China’s assertiveness could become a source of escalated tensions or even military strife, according to analysts.


“Just the fact that the U.S. will continue to accelerate the freedom of navigation operations, and then you have the number of Chinese ships, including their maritime militia which are basically disguised as fishing boats, the likelihood of some sort of confrontation flare-up remains, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if something happened,” Robert Manning from the Atlantic Council told VOA.


Vital to US interests


Trump has said that China is “building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which it shouldn’t be doing.” Commercial satellite imagery shows China has been building anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on the artificial islands it has constructed.


During the campaign, Trump also pledged to rebuild the U.S. armed forces from the damage suffered under the sequestration budget cuts. His advocacy for an increase to the Navy and Air Force are particularly significant in the context of the Asia-Pacific region.


Observers said they would be watching closely for any sign of the new administration’s willingness, or unwillingness, to accept risk in response to China’s recent assertive behavior.


“Regional experts will judge the new administration on where and when it conducts its first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in Asia. China too may be tempted to test the new administration’s policies with assertive operations,” reads a commentary published by Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS.)

Bonnie Glaser, who is CSIS Senior Adviser, is one of the authors of the commentary.


“The incoming administration probably wants to signal that these FONOPs will continue, so I would expect that one will take place before the end of February,” Glaser who told VOA.


Glaser said “the intended warning” by Tillerson “was probably that the Chinese shouldn’t use these islands to interfere with freedom of navigation in the air and sea.”

Although the United States is not a claimant to the sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, Washington said it is vital to its national interests that various claimants pursue their claims peacefully, and in accordance with the international law.


Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a vessel is permitted to conduct innocent passage through a coastal state’s territorial sea without prior permission as long as it does so continuously and expeditiously.


The U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea reaffirmed this right against China’s attempt to impose restraints on it.


“It’s important for the president-elect to push back and say that America is going to stand by its national interest,” Chairman of the Idaho Republican Party Stephen Yates told VOA.


Early challenge?


In a Skype interview, Yates said, “China may do something to challenge early on” in the Trump administration. Yates served in the White House during the George W. Bush administration from 2001 through 2005.


“I recalled the 2001 April 1st EP-3 incidence, it’s a big difficulty for the Bush administration. I certainly hope nothing like that will be on the horizon, but we have to be careful.”


The serious incident of April 2001 between Washington and Beijing involved a collision over the South China Sea between a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval F-8 fighter that crashed.

After surviving the near-fatal accident, the U.S. crew made an emergency landing of their damaged plane onto a PLA airfield on Hainan Island, where they were detained for 11 days. Washington and Beijing disagreed over the cause of the accident, and argued over the release of the crew and plane.


In the longer term, the incident has implications for the right of the United States and other nations’ aircraft to fly in international airspace over the South China Sea.


While freedom of navigation operations are necessary to assert maritime rights available to all governments under international law, observers said such operations should not be confused as efforts to reverse China’s reclamation, construction or militarization in the South China Sea because the time is too late for that.


“I think there is a consensus growing in Washington, and in other capitals like Canberra and Tokyo, that the Obama administration was too passive, too reactive, and too slow, as China reclaims land, builds military facilities, runways, increases the operations and the numbers of its PLAs, coast guard ships and planes,” Georgetown University associate professor Michael Green told VOA.


Green, who served as a senior official at the White House National Security Council during the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005, said “there has to be a more robust [U.S.] presence” in the South China Sea.


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