Before even taking up his official post, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, laid down a potential powder keg in the South China Sea after saying Wednesday that China should not be allowed access to its artificial islands in the disputed maritime territory.
During his hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to answer questions about his nomination for U.S. secretary of state, the former head of ExxonMobil went on the offensive against Beijing. “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.
Tillerson said that China’s island building in the strategic and energy-rich waterway was illegal, a claim Beijing disputes. Tillerson said that potential Chinese control over the sea would threaten the “entire global economy” and that the previous responses by the U.S. have been inadequate, allowing Beijing “to keep pushing the envelope.”
China’s response to Tillerson’s antagonizing comments were met with measure but also confusion. Probed about how the U.S. could block China’s access to the islands, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said Thursday that he could not guess what Tillerson’s comments were referring to and refused to answer a reporter’s “hypothetical question” on the issue.
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Yuan Zheng, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of American Studies, told that Chinese media that “China is not Cuba, and the South China Sea is not the Caribbean. The South China Sea is not under the U.S. sphere of influence, it’s China’s territorial waters,” adding that he did not believe that the U.S. would block Chinese access to the islands.
Wu Xinbo, from Fudan University, said that Tillerson’s comments were hardline and that hostile U.S. actions in the area such as sanctions would not only severely affect relations between the world’s two biggest economies, but could result in Chinese retaliation.
“What’s been built has been built ... It should be noted that rising American military pressure could be used to justify China’s military deployment,” Wu told The South China Morning Post.
“This is a signal, now that Trump is set to take office, that he wants to have a tough stand on China … China does not stir up troubles but we are not afraid of them when they come,” Yang Chengjun, a retired senior colonel and military expert told the New York Times.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to the waterway and in July last year, the Philippines won an international arbitration case upholding their claims against China over the area, although China does not recognize the legal decision.
“The way we’ve got to deal with this is we’ve got to show back up in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia,” Tillerson said. But traditional U.S. ally the Philippines withheld response, with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana telling reporters Thursday, “let’s wait until Trump is in office.”
While Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has recently teased at a move away from traditional foreign policy reliance on the U.S., Tillerson said that he intended to preserve their “longstanding friendship,” but said that he would need more “facts from the ground” before he commented on Duterte's bloody drug war.
During Thursday's hearing for Trump’s nominee for the U.S. secretary of defense, retired marine General James Mattis avoided a direct response about the South China Sea, saying that his strategy was always to side with allies.