Beijing to Trump: Tread Lightly

With the Trump administration reaffirming its intention to block Chinese access to islands in the South China Sea, Beijing is wasting no time laying down some red lines of its own. In a rare English-language interview with NBC News, a senior spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Lu Kang, sent a series of strong warnings to the new administration:

“There might be a difference” of opinion regarding who has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, “but that’s not for the United States” to get involved in, Lu Kang, a senior official with the Chinese foreign ministry, told NBC News in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. […]

“That’s not international territory, that’s Chinese territory,” Lu said, insisting that China has every right to build whatever it wants on the islands. […]

Lu was especially emphatic about President Trump’s position on Taiwan.

“This issue touches upon China’s core interests. By no means is this something that can be negotiated, or [used] as a bargaining chip,” Lu said.

Lu also reaffirmed Beijing’s non-negotiable One China policy and stated that China does not want a trade war, but “it’s not only up to us. That needs efforts from both sides.”

Beijing has clearly been rattled by recent comments from the new administration, especially Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing statement that Chinese access to its islands in the South China Sea would “not be allowed.” That stance was largely reaffirmed by Sean Spicer at a press briefing on Monday. “If those islands are, in fact, in international waters and not part of China proper,” said Spicer, “yeah, we’ll make sure we defend international interests from being taken over by one country.”

China’s latest comments—perhaps delivered via a television interview as a means of getting them directly to a President who reportedly enjoys watching it—seem geared toward talking Trump down from his maximalist stances. But if the first few days of his presidency are any indication, Trump has little to no inclination to backtrack. If the dynamic holds could set up Beijing and Washington for a serious collision course in the South China Sea.

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