Is a war between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea all but inevitable? Steve Bannon thinks so. In a series of radio shows for his former publication Breitbart News over the past two years, Bannon—now White House senior counselor and President Donald Trump’s closest advisor—made it seem like armed conflict is on the horizon. And that could prove disastrous for both sides.
USA Today reviewed dozens of hours of audio of his Breitbart News Daily radio show from 2015 and 2016 in which he warned his listeners that the West is in “global existential war,” particularly with China and Islam. Below are two of his more notable warnings concerning China:
“We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years,” he said in March 2016. “There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those.
They come here to the United States in front of our face – and you understand how important face is – and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.”
In an earlier broadcast, he had this to say:
“You have an expansionist Islam and you have an expansionist China. Right? They are motivated. They’re arrogant. They’re on the march. And they think the Judeo-Christian west is on the retreat,” Bannon said during a February 2016 radio show.
Just talk show host rhetoric, right? Not anymore.
Bannon’s warmongering rhetoric is very consistent with the adversarial tone that President Donald Trump has taken with China over the years as a private citizen and even more so during his time as a presidential candidate. But now that he has assumed office and has the power to authorize military operations, the stakes and chances of conflict over the South China Sea are real possibilities.
But Bannon is not alone in his aggressive tone towards Beijing. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing that China should be barred from accessing the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea. “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” Tillerson said. “They are taking territory or control or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s.”
Make no mistake that any kind of conflict between China and the Unites States in the South China Sea, no matter the scale, would be a complete disaster. Say, for example, Tillerson follows through on his suggestion that he’d prevent China from getting to its own manmade islands. Such a move would require a blockade, which Mira Rapp-Hooper, a South China Sea expert at the Center for a New American Security, says is “an act of war.”
As for how the a military conflict the two nations would play out, China would have the edge simply because it is in its waters. As a Business Insider report points out, the U.S. military only has a fraction of its resources devoted to the part of the Pacific where China sits. Given that China’s resources are more regional, the U.S. Navy would feel the full brunt of a Chinese sea attack. And its most recent nuclear-powered submarine, the Type 093B, is reportedly competitive with the Navy’s Los Angeles-class boats. Even more troubling is that China’s military is nearly double that of America’s and Beijing could easily deploy it against the U.S. in the South China Sea. This would force other branches of the U.S. military to adjust their commitments elsewhere around the world to assist servicemen and women in the South China Sea. It would be a bloodbath on both sides, with the U.S. in the most danger to lose.
On the trade side, delivery routes could be disrupted for weeks, sending insurance rates souring through the roof, as I wrote earlier for Foxtrot Alpha. More than $5.3 trillion is traded in the South China Sea; U.S. has $1.2 trillion of that. Any war could result in billions in lost revenue.
Economically and casualty-wise, the U.S. and China would suffer tremendously.
Exacerbating those stakes is having Bannon part of national security discussions, a move many observers found highly unusual and dangerous because of his dearth of experience handling such matters. According to Foreign Policy, Bannon has already taken reign of all major decisions on national security and is working to ensure there is no White House paper trail.
In response, U.S. Representative Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla) has introduced a bill that, if passed, would bar anyone who whose job is political in nature from being appointed a member on security council or attend meetings. In a GOP-controlled Congress, though, chances of the bill passing are highly unlikely.
Steps to challenge Bannon’s authority are important because, despite having served as a a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy, he has no foreign policy background—or a track record of handing such delicate issues such as the complicated nature of South China Sea politics. And if Trump’s clumsiness over handing Beijing are any indication of Bannon’s counsel, the already contentious Beijing-Washington relationship can potentially escalate to a more serious conflict.
Trump’s first mistake came when he called Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December, which China considered an insult and breach of diplomatic protocol regarding the “One China” policy. China has responded in series of aggressive posturing moves in what is widely seen as signals to Trump that it is bracing for a fight with the U.S. The most recent shot at Trump came in the form of testing one of its DF-5C missiles. The Chinese also seized a Navy drone out of the South China Sea in a move that was seen as a shot at Trump over his aggressive language over trade and Taiwan.
Bannon’s hawkish China language signals that Trump’s top advisor doesn’t see a peaceful resolution with Beijing over South China Sea territory issues. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are the other countries that have territory disputes in the sea that have dragged for decades. Last year, an international tribunal rule against China that it held rights over key strategic reefs and atolls in the sea. China ignored it.
It is likely that China will rebuff any attempt Trump makes at challenging it over the South China Sea, no matter what Bannon says.