Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comment during his confirmation hearing that the United States would deny China access to its man-made island bases in the South China Sea caused a predictable furor.
However, few people seriously think the US is going to blockade the islands. This is a poor option anyway.
China’s military is not going to be rolled back and abandon the islands. It can’t. Beijing’s leadership has proven it is no better at running an economy than anyone else in human history. That only leaves restoring China’s grandeur to justify Chinese Communist Party rule. Backing down in the face of US pressure would be humiliating and possibly threaten regime survival.
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Even if the US has few decent options for direct military pressure on existing Chinese-held island bases, Tillerson’s comments and subsequent statements by Trump Administration officials suggest an abrupt change in longstanding US policy towards China.
One might now anticipate an end to accommodationist (some would say, appeasement) policy under which the norm was ‘de-escalation’ whenever China did something provocative.
While the US more or less stood by, the People’s Republic of China has come close to establishing de facto control of the South China Sea and greatly expanded its position inside the entire so-called 1st Island Chain. China’s military can make an opponent’s operations inside the chain extremely difficult – and this will become even more the case as the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities increase.
However, China’s leaders might ask themselves, ‘now what…?’
China’s strength inside the 1st Island Chain may not be the strategic advantage it seems – now that the United States appears willing to defend its interests.