We were surprised by how contained China was this morning after yesterday's confirmation hearing of Rex Tillerson, in which the former Exxon CEO said that a failure to respond to China had allowed it to “keep pushing the envelope” in the South China Sea and added that “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” and that putting military assets on those islands was "akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine."
Traditionally such a direct threat would be i) perceived as very undiplomatic and ii) prompt an immediate, and angry rebuke from Beijing, with China immediately shifting to the offensive.
“This is the sort of off-the-cuff remark akin to a tweet that pours fuel on the fire and maybe makes things worse,” Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra told Bloomberg. “Short of going to war with China, there is nothing the Americans can do.”
But not today: during his press conference earlier today, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang could barely muster the will to sound defensive, saying China has been acting within the limits of its sovereignty. “Like the U.S., China has the right within its own territory to carry out normal activities,” he said at a regular briefing in Beijing. When asked repeatedly about Tillerson's comments on blocking access to islands, China's foreign ministry spokesman said he couldn't make any guesses as to what Tillerson was referring to and would not answer hypothetical questions, Reuters reported.
As it turns out, China may not have had time to digest what Tillerson said. After all his South China sea remark was toward the end of his nearly all day long hearing, and so many local media outlets may have simply missed it. However, they caught up today, and first China Daily, then its nationalist tabloid, the Global Times took turns to first mock, then attack Tillerson.
Here is the gist of the China Daily op-ed published earlier today: according to the Chinese daily mouthpiece, not only were Tillerson's views "divergent from, even contrary to, those of Trump on some critical issues. He openly conceded he is yet to have a serious, in-depth discussion with Trump on foreign policy imperatives. These boil down to one simple point – his remarks at the Wednesday hearing, sensational as they were, turned out to be of little reference value except for judging his personal orientations."
Yet while China realizes that Tillerson's bluster was intended for a specific audience, that does not make it any happier:
The backlash that has ensued is understandable. It is certainly no small matter for a man intended to be the US diplomat in chief to display such undisguised animosity toward China. Tillerson labeled China's reclamation projects in the South China Sea as "an illegal taking of disputed areas without regard for international norms," in obvious disregard of the essential truth that all those activities took place well within the country's persistent, historical territorial claims.
Blaming the "extremely worrisome" state of affairs in the South China Sea on an "inadequate US response", the US secretary of state nominee even claimed China's access to those islands should "not to be allowed". Which sounded intimidating; though he stopped short of elaborating how to achieve it. And like Trump, he blamed Beijing for "not being a reliable partner" in dealing with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
And then, the not so subtle threats followed:
Such remarks are not worth taking seriously because they are a mish-mash of naivety, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices, and unrealistic political fantasies. Should he act on them in the real world, it would be disastrous.
As many have observed, it would set a course for devastating confrontation between China and the US. After all, how can the US deny China access to its own territories without inviting the latter's legitimate, defensive responses?
Finally, the mocking of Tillerson as a clueless former company exec who does not have the faintest understanding of diplomacy: "Tillerson wanted a reality-based China policy that is "based on what we see and not based on what we hope". But what he presented was based more on what prejudice and arms-spurred self-righteousness make him believe and hope than on real-world realities. What happened on Wednesday shows that if and when confirmed, Rex Tillerson needs to first acquaint himself with the ABCs of China-US relations and diplomacy at large."
The Global Times approach was almost verbatim. First, the justification of Tillerson's "bluster":
It is suspected that he merely wanted to curry favor from senators and increase his chances of being confirmed by intentionally showing a tough stance toward China.
Tillerson did not give details of how he would achieve his self-proclaimed goals. Nonetheless, he also mentioned that Chinese and American economic interests are deeply intertwined and that "China has been a valuable ally in curtailing elements of radical Islam." He noted that "We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership."
Motives aside, the GT then explained that China no longer views itself as America's subordinate:
China has enough determination and strength to make sure that his rabble rousing will not succeed. Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish. The US has no absolute power to dominate the South China Sea.
Following this, just like in the case of China Daily, there was the mocking:
Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories. Probably he just has oil prices and currency rates in his mind as former ExxonMobil CEO.
Next, the not so thinly veiled threat - again - aimed not so much at Tillerson but at Trump:
As Trump has yet to be sworn in, China has shown restraint whenever his team members expressed radical views. But the US should not be misled into thinking that Beijing will be fearful of their threats.
How does it all end according to China? Unless Trump's diplomatic team changes course, the Times said "the two sides better prepare for a military clash."
Tillerson's statements regarding the islands in the South China Sea are far from professional. If Trump's diplomatic team shapes future Sino-US ties as it is doing now, the two sides had better prepare for a military clash. South China Sea countries will accelerate their negotiations on a Code of Conduct. They have the ability to solve divergences by themselves without US interference.
And the conclusion:
Just as the Philippines and Vietnam are trying to warm their ties with China, Tillerson's words cannot be more irritating. It is hoped that Tillerson will desire a productive partnership with China more and his harsh words are just coaxing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But no matter what, China will always respond to various US diplomatic maneuvers.
As a reminder, all this has already happened and Trump isn't president yet. We eagerly look forward to the president-elect's next steps vis-a-vis an increasingly angry CHina and vice versa.