Rex Tillerson and the South China Sea Dispute: An Impending War?

Rex Tillerson

During his confirmation hearing, Rex Tillerson  stated that he will not tolerate Chinese role in the South China Sea Dispute. Rex Tillerson’s statement has already deteriorated territorial dispute over the tiny islands claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. Although the United States claims that it does not take sides in territorial disputes, Tillerson’s take on the issue covertly reflects American interest in the region which has been being closely monitored by US military ships and planes. Both China and the US blame each other for militarizing the South China Sea. Disputes can suddenly turn into violent conflict with long-term and serious global impacts.

What is the South China Sea Dispute About?

Rex Tillerson has reignited the South China Sea Dispute by overtly threatening China. The South China Sea is economically and strategically important to all the neighboring countries as a major shipping route and a rich fishing ground. People’s livelihood across the region is directly or indirectly related to the sea. The dispute revolves around the undecided ownership to a number of tiny islands that surfaced from the ocean bed: close to these islands there are many atolls, sandbanks, and reefs. There is a high probability that these islands have reserves precious natural resources. Grouped into two island chains, the Paracels and the Spratyls, are now claimed by almost all the neighboring countries. Both the island chains are uninhabited.

Chinese Claim on South China Sea:

Although Rex Tillerson threats China for its questionable presence in the disputed area, China has responded harshly by saying that “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.”As cartographic representation of the islands shows, the Paracels are closer to China than the Spratyls. However, the Paracels are also very close to Vietnam, whereas the Spratyls are close to Malaysia, and the Philippines. China asserts that most of the region belongs to it and claims that for centuries the Paracel and Spratly islands have been recognized as integral parts of China. To substantiate its claim, Beijing refers to a map that the country issued in 1947. In the Chinese map, it is seen that both the islands are located entirely within Chinese territory. However, the Chinese version of the map is a little problematic as it shows that the entire South China Sea is Chinese territory.

Vietnam and Taiwan on the Dispute:

Taiwan’s claims on the disputed territory echoes the Chinese claim. However, Vietnam seriously contests the Chinese claim and states that China has never had any claim on the islands before the mid-20th Century. To support its claim, Vietnam declared that it has been ruling the islands for three centuries and is ready to demonstrate the claim with documents.

Other Countries and the South China Sea Dispute:

The Philippines claims the Paracels islands based on its geographical proximity—it’s just 100 miles from the western shore of the Phillipinnes whereas 500 miles from China. Malaysia and Brunei use the UNCLOS definition of economic exclusion zone to claim some of the disputed islands.

Territorial Disputes over the South China Sea:

Records of violent disputes between China and Vietnam date back to the early 1970s with huge casualties on both sides: more than 70 Vietnamese soldiers have been killed by China when it seized the Paracels from Vietnam. Ten years later in 1988 China again attacked Vietnamese troops in the Spratlys and killed 60 men. Both China and the Phillipines had been on high alert in 2012 over the ownership of a disputed island in the Paracels. China has already installed a drilling rig and allegedly sabotaged the Vietnamese exploration operations.

Resolution to the South China Sea dispute?

The Philippines has tried to take the issue to the UN and resolve it through an arbitration tribunal. The tribunal declared that China has violated the Philippines’s rights of ownership. Unfortunately China has rejected the proceedings of the tribunal and restarted the dispute through its regular presence in the disputed islands.

Rex Tillerson and the South China Sea dispute:

Rex Tillerson has used the South China Sea dispute to set the stage and technically announce his newly assumed role as the Secretary of State. China has built a number of artificial islands in the disputed region, and Tillerson declared that China will not be allowed to enter in the disputed waters. During his confirmation hearing, Tillerson said that Chinese presence in the disputed area is “extremely worrisome”. Tillerson compared the Chinese case with Russian annexation of the Crimea which resulted in sanctions imposed on Russia by the world communities. It is no wonder that Trump’s views on China expressed during the campaign will often shape his administration attitudes to China. Tougher stance against China shouldn’t surprise anyone at all!


About the author

Sayeed Noman

Sayeed Noman is a Fulbright scholar and an adjunct professor at Temple University. His PhD dissertation focuses on Afrocentricity, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. His interest ranges from political to economic and cultural issues.

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