The Trump administration keeps talking tough on the South China Sea with no plans to back it up

Terry Branstad speaks to the press meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

President Donald Trump’s nominee for US ambassador to China continued the administration’s tough line on China’s development of “artificial islands” in the South China Sea on Tuesday — but there’s still no concrete plan to back it up.

“China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce its neighbours or limit freedom of navigation or overflight,” Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad said at his Senate confirmation hearing.

Branstad’s statement echoed Secretary of State Tillerson’s tough talk on the South China Sea during his confirmation hearing, where he suggested the US would stop Chinese ships from accessing their artificial islands.

At the time, Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider that Tillerson’s plan would cause the US to “certainly end up in a shooting war with China.”

Other Trump administration officials have since walked back those claims, and overall the administration has said very little about the South China Sea — instead putting the focus on North Korea during talks with China’s Xi Jinping.

Meanwhile, China’s influence in the region, where five trillion in shipping passes annually, has only grown. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) dropped references to “land reclamation and militarization” from its chairman’s statement this year at the end of its summit in the Philippine capital, Manila.

In the past, ASEAN has been a leading voice in opposing China’s land grab. China maintains it has not militarised its artificial islands, but in early April, satellite imagery spotted a Chinese fighter jet on the Paracel islands.

Elsewhere on China’s reclaimed islands, structures to house missile defences and radars have been spotted.

Despite at times vocally opposing China’s “massive fortress” in the South China Sea, the Trump administration has not yet carried out a single freedom of navigation patrol in the region.

Freedom of navigation patrols serve as the US’s main way of pushing back on China’s land claims, and involve sailing US Navy ships in close proximity to disputed islands in an attempt to check their sovereignty.

Adm. Harry Harris, leader of the US military’s Pacific Command, told Congress that such patrols would be forthcoming without announcing any specific dates.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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