(CNN) — China is reacting very strongly to Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s suggestion of 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.
China’s military build-up of these islands has angered the Obama administration. They’ve staked a claim to thousands of acres of what were sandbars and reefs, and used sophisticated equipment to pump sand through tubes to create islands. Then they’ve built airfields with towering radar stations, constructed ports, and even built barracks.
The U.S. has sent ships and planes very near the islands, sometimes drawing Chinese warnings.
On Friday, a government-run Chinese newspaper warns of a possible war with the U.S. over the man-made islands.
It’s spurred by this comment made by Tillerson at his confirmation hearing Wednesday: “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 responded: “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” and that “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.
But how could the U.S. deny China access to those islands? Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic & International Studies says “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,” he said. “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 four 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.”
Analysts are worried about escalation.
“The biggest fear is of accidental conflict,” said Robert Daly of the Woodrow Wilson Center. “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.”
A Trump transition official tells CNN that denying China access to those islands doesn’t have to mean a naval blockade, suggesting that “economic options” could be on the table.