Many thought trade would be the first area in which the administration of President Donald Trump could see tensions rising with China. On the campaign trail, Trump talked constantly about China and jobs, and pledged to label Beijing a currency manipulator and vowed to levy punishing tariffs to counter China’s cheating on trade.


But on Trump’s first workday in office, it was Beijing’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea and its militarization of artificially made islands that began to quickly emerge as a point of contention.


During a briefing Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Washington would “defend international territories” in the strategic waterway and keep them from being taken over by one country.


Spicer did not say how the United States might do that, what circumstances might trigger such an action or the islands he was referring to, but he said the islands were “in fact in international waters and not part of China proper.”


But just how confrontational Trump is prepared to be is unclear.


Block access

Earlier this month, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson told lawmakers the United States should send a clear signal to China by first demanding the island building stop and second blocking access to the islands.


Chinese state media and academics have warned such a move would be tantamount to declaring war.


Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying offered a sharp response to Spicer’s comments, arguing Beijing has “irrefutable” sovereignty over the disputed Spratly islands and their adjacent waters.


“China urges the U.S. side to respect facts and speak and act with caution so as not to impair peace and stability in the South China Sea region,” Hua said at a regular briefing.


China has built up seven artificial islands in disputed parts of the South China Sea, which are now heavily fortified.


Declaring war


Speaking at a briefing on the new U.S. administration to foreign journalists Tuesday, Tang Jianqun called the notion of a blockade “absurd.” Tang is the director of the department of American studies at the China Institute of International Studies.


“There is no way that the United States will send in warships to blockade islands that are being guarded by soldiers,” he said. “That would be the same as declaring war.”


Tang said that while there is no reason to believe economic and military frictions between the United States and China will lessen, he is confident the two will be able to manage their differences and find a way to make compromises or “make a deal.”


But there is much uncertainty in China about how Trump’s approach to the South China Sea could play out.


Broad, clear & vague


On the campaign trail, talk about the South China Sea was a mere whimper in contrast to Trump’s remarks about China and trade. And while a July U.N. ruling rejected China’s claim to almost all of the vast maritime region, Beijing has since mended fences with two big claimants in the hotly contested waters, the Philippines and Vietnam.


And it was the Philippines that filed the international suit against Beijing.


Because of that, Beijing seemed to believe the United States had no “entry point” to get involved in the South China Sea, said Sun Yun, an East Asia fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based research group.


“Hypothetically, if they do push the Pacific Command to try to block the Chinese or intercept naval vessels or warplanes from going into the region or going into the occupational islands that China has reclaimed then that would be very confrontational. But are they wiling to go that far?” Sun asked, noting the Chinese and analysts are still trying to figure that out.


Channeling Reagan


What is clear, is the comments from the Trump administration did not just appear out of thin air.


In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Bill Hayton, a South China Sea expert notes that in September, James Kraska, a professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College argued it would be legal for Washington to take such action.

“The United States can and should challenge China’s rights to access its artificial islands 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,” Kraska said during the hearing.


In a recent blog, Kraska notes that during Tillerson’s nomination hearing he was echoing President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Oceans Policy. While China is a signatory of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United States is not. Reagan issued the Oceans Policy in response to that decision.

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