At his confirmation hearing yesterday, Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state appeared to take an unusual and potentially explosive stance on relations with Beijing, saying that China should be denied access to the many artificial islands that it has constructed in the disputed South China Sea.
“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,” the 64-year-old former Exxon CEO said when asked if he supported a more aggressive posture toward China, adding that China’s island-building was “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.”
Tillerson did not go on to inform the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee how exactly he proposed to keep China away from the artificial islands it has dredged up from the South China Sea. The only conceivable way to do so would seem to be militarily, in a full-scale war with China.
Over the past two years, China has built up more than 3,000 acres of territory on seven reefs in the South China Sea. Despite protests from neighboring nations, they have constructed runways on three of the artificial islands, allowing tourists to arrive and visit this exotic land of cute female soldiers, veggie gardens, and, increasingly, military installations equipped with surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns.
Tillerson’s comments will certainly upset Beijing and lead to some fiery Global Times editorials. China has steadfastly insisted that the vast majority of the South China Sea is its own sovereign territory, going back to ancient times, and has not been dissuaded from this fact even by an unfavorable international tribunal ruling in The Hague last summer.
“They’re taking territory or control, or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s. 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, blaming China’s aggression in the region on Washington’s weak response in the past.
Tillerson said that Beijing’s control over the South China Sea, where $5.3 trillion of trade passes through each year, was a threat to the “entire global economy.” In recent years, the Obama administration has carried out several “freedom of navigation” patrols in the region, sending Navy ships and planes to within miles of China’s artificial islands, challenging Beijing’s claims to the regions.
At the confirmation hearing, Tillerson also attacked China for its failure to help end the nuclear missile crisis in North Korea, saying that Beijing has “complete control over what sustains the government of North Korea,” echoing remarks made in the past by Trump who has suggested that China make Kim Jong Un disappear.
While China may be North Korea’s biggest and most important ally, experts have disputed the claim that Beijing holds overwhelming sway in Pyongyang, especially when it comes to the continuation of its missile program.
Tillerson also backed Trump in attacking China for failing to live up to the global agreements it has signed regarding trade and intellectual property; however, he appeared to take a softer tone than the president-elect when asked about America’s commitment to the “one China” policy regarding Taiwan.
“I don’t know of any plans to alter the ‘one China’ position,” he said.
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