(CNN) – China is reacting very strongly to Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson, who’s suggested a more aggressive strategy by the U.S. in the contested waters of the South China Sea.
That’s where China has built and militarized artificial islands. They’ve staked a claim to thousands of acres, of what were sandbars and reefs. They’ve used sophisticated equipment, like special ships, pumping sand through thin tubes, to create islands. Then they built airfields with towering radar stations, constructed ports, deployed weapons there, and even built barracks.
China’s military build-up of these islands in the South China Sea has angered the Obama Administration. The U.S. has sent ships and planes very near the islands, sometimes drawing Chinese warnings.
Now, a government-run Chinese newspaper is warning of a possible war with the U.S., over the manmade islands. It’s spurred by this comment from Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson, at his confirmation hearings, “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 also not going to be allowed.”
The Chinese newspaper says, “unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea…”, then trying to block China’s access to the islands would be, “foolish”. Also, “Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories.”
Pentagon officials are calling on China to reduce tensions. How could the U.S. deny China access to those islands?
“If the U.S. wanted to deny access, how would they do it?”
“You would want start with a naval blockade. That’s what people would think, you know, Cuban Missile Crisis, in the modern area. But this is a lot of space to cover. I would assume that you’re talking about blocking access to the 7 islands that China occupies here in the Spratleys, out of these dozens. You’d also have to deal with their air capabilities. This is not just a naval blockade. China has 4 different airstrips built on the largest islands. They have hangar space for a full regiment of fighter aircraft, each one of these, that’s an awful lot of capability. And finally, this is not without cost. These are not defenseless features. What you’re looking at here are advanced air defense and anti-missile systems. This is an anti-aircraft gun,” said Gregory Poling, Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Analysts are worried about escalation.
“The biggest fear is of accidental conflict of accidental conflict. The South China Sea, even under the best possible set of circumstances, is going to get more crowded and more contentious. There are going to be more commercial ships in the area, and there are going to be more military assets,” said Robert Daly, The Woodrow Wilson Center.
A Trump transition officials tells CNN that denying China access to those islands doesn’t have to mean a naval blockade, suggesting “economic options” could be on the table.