U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state has set a course for a potentially serious confrontation with Beijing, saying China should be denied access to islands it has built in the contested South China Sea.
I don't see this as akin to Russia's capture of Crimea from Ukraine.
The bits of semi-submerged rocks are arguably Chinese. There are disputes, but ownership is not settled--as Ukraine's ownership of Crimea was settled until Russia said "never mind" and took the peninsula.
So turning them into islands in theory just made something nice for someone else if ownership is settled.
And even arming the islands doesn't seem outrageous.
What is a problem is if China tries to assert that the rocks are now legally islands that allow China to claim 12 nautical miles around them as Chinese territory.
What is a problem is if China tries to claim an exclusive economic zone around them and then claims this gives them the right to treat the waters as Chinese territory for a number of purposes.
Mind you, China simply claims the bulk of the South China Sea as their territory without requiring such justifications. But China will add them to their case, have no doubt.
So I wouldn't try to blockade the Chinese during peacetime.
What I would do is carry out clear and unambiguous actual freedom of navigation operations--not dressed up innocent passage missions that would be legal if we sailed past Peking (figuratively speaking).
They should be properly backed to make sure Chinese fishing vessels don't swarm and disable a single American warship sailing close to those islands, giving China an excuse to "rescue" the vessel with heavily armed coast guard vessels.
But perhaps Tillerson is just staking out an advanced position for the purpose of negotiations so the Chinese will be relieved about what we actually do.