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Another Pointless Provocation of China

Tillerson’s remarks yesterday about denying China access to its artificial islands in the South China Sea have stirred up a strong reaction in China:

Mr. Tillerson’s comments, with the possible implication that the United States might use its armed forces to deny the Chinese access to the islands, garnered reactions including confusion, disbelief and warlike threats from analysts in China.

These comments were the most dangerous position Tillerson has taken so far. We have to hope that this won’t become Trump’s policy, because it would put us on a very risky collision course with China over something that is frankly not worth fighting over. Meanwhile, making these statements isn’t helpful, and serves only to increase tensions with Beijing:

“This is the sort of off-the-cuff remark akin to a tweet that pours fuel on the fire and maybe makes things worse,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “Short of going to war with China, there is nothing the Americans can do.”

Suffice it to say, the U.S. shouldn’t be going to war over this, and I doubt China’s government believes that the U.S. would go to war over it. If that’s right, it is difficult to see what the U.S. would gain by making threats that it isn’t going to carry out. Possibly Tillerson was just engaging in more hawkish posturing to make his confirmation process easier, but that’s no excuse. Whatever Tillerson’s reason for making these comments might be, it risks worsening relations with China without gaining the U.S. anything.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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