If Donald Trump’s hawkish new administration follows through on threats and tries to cut Beijing off from artificial islands in the South China Sea, it could face a stiffer pushback than many imagine, experts say. The US president and his team have made much of their desire to put Beijing in its place, including in the strategically vital waterway, which China claims almost entirely and where it has reclaimed — and fortified — thousands of acres of land, according to the Pentagon.
Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, told his confirmation hearing the US needs to send a clear signal that China’s access to the islands is “not going to be allowed”. Observers quickly pointed out the full-scale blockade this would require was likely to provoke a military response from Beijing — a response that might be enough to make the US think twice.
While Beijing may have a poorer and less well-equipped military, it is stocking its arsenal with submarines, anti-ship missiles and other weapons tailor-made to neutralise Washington’s most valuable naval assets, they say.
“Beijing knows that it cannot win a conventional frontal conflict with the US,” with its vastly superior military, Valerie Niquet of French think tank Foundation of Strategic Research told AFP.
Instead, it is developing “capacities that would restore its freedom to manoeuvre by pushing Washington to hesitate before a potentially costly intervention in Asia.” China’s island building programme in the South China Sea has irked neighbours — many of whom also have claims to parts of the sea — and caused global concern.