Rex Tillerson has set the stage for a major diplomatic clash between Washington and Beijing after the nominee for US secretary of state said China should not be allowed to access islands it has built in the South China Sea.
At his confirmation hearing before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, Mr Tillerson said China’s construction of artificial islands in the contested sea was “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine in 2014.
“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,” he added.
Over the past three years China has deployed dredging ships to create islands out of rocks and coral reefs in the South China Sea, which experts believe is part of a strategy to bolster its territorial claim to the area — and potentially to deny other nations access to the resource-rich, strategically important waters.
Mr Tillerson said any move by Beijing to dictate access to the waterway would be a threat to the “entire global economy”.
Mr Tillerson’s comments are likely to escalate tensions between Washington and Beijing over the issue.
China’s claims to almost all of the South China Sea are contested by several other countries in the region, including Vietnam and the Philippines. US warships have periodically been sent to challenge Chinese claims to territorial waters around the reclaimed islands, in so-called freedom of navigation operations.
When Mr Tillerson was chief executive of ExxonMobil, it was one of the few large international oil and gas groups willing to explore alongside Vietnam in waters also claimed by China in the South China Sea. Others pulled out of possible collaborations with the Vietnamese in these contested waters, after coming under pressure from Beijing.
Mr Tillerson, if confirmed as secretary of state, would be in a position decisively to influence US policy towards China. But he did not make clear how the US might prevent China from accessing the islands.
His challenge is the latest China bombshell to emerge from Mr Trump’s camp. In November the president-elect took a phone call from Taiwan’s leader, a breach of decades of convention that prompted a formal complaint from Beijing, and later fired off a series of incendiary tweets attacking China on trade issues and its stance on UN sanctions against North Korea.
Mr Tillerson said he considered China’s South China Sea activity ”extremely worrisome”.
“They’re taking territory or control, or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s,” he said.
China is reckoned to have largely completed its programme of island-building in the South China Sea and — according to satellite imagery — is now building facilities including runways and what appear to be surface-to-air missile battery emplacements on some islands. Its strategy appears to be to use the islands to buttress its claim to more than 85 per cent of the sea.
Experts believe the next step for China may be to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone over the sea, in effect claiming the airspace.
In other comments directed at China, Mr Tillerson said Beijing had failed to meet its pledges in global agreements on trade and intellectual property, and that the US should no longer accept Beijing’s “empty promises” that it would press North Korea over its weapons programmes.
However, he said, “we should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership”.
Additional reporting by Ben Bland in Jakarta
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