Trump administration will send 'clear signal' to China on South China Sea, says Rex Tillerson
US President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the United States will send a "clear signal" to China that it must abandon its artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Tillerson also warned China against its "extremely worrisome" activities in the disputed waters.
"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 not going to be allowed," the 64-year-old former ExxonMobil CEO told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
"China's activity in this area is extremely worrisome and I think, again, a failure of a response has allowed them just to keep pushing the envelope on this," he said in response to a question.
The former oil executive said China's island-building activities in the disputed waters and its declaration of an air defence identification zone over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands in the East China Sea were "illegal actions".
"They are taking territory or control or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China's," he said, asserting that "building islands and then putting military assets on those island is akin to Russia's taking of Crimea."
He said it is a "threat to the entire global economy" if China is allowed to somehow "dictate" the terms of passage through these waters.
"So this is a global issue of great importance to many, many of our important allies, but certainly to people in the region," Tillerson said.
"We find we are where we are and we just have to deal with it, and the way we've got to deal with it is we're going to have to show back up in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia and I think use some existing structures to begin the re-engagement," he said, adding that there is $5 trillion of economic trade going through those waters every day.
Throwing enough hints that the US will adopt a strong stance against China under a Trump administration, he said, "I think part of where we struggled with China is we do have important economic relationships. Our economies are intertwined. But we've got to step back and look at all of China's activities."
He said there are international processes for dealing with that and China should respect those international processes .
"Some of their actions have already been challenged at the courts in the Hague and they were found to be in violation," he noted.
China claims almost the whole of the resource-rich South China Sea (SCS). Its claim, however, is strongly contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
An international tribunal — whose jurisdiction Beijing rejected — ruled last year that there was no legal basis to such claims.
Responding to questions from lawmakers, Tillerson advocated for a "new approach" towards China.
"I think a lot of our troubles today are that we do not enforce. We make commitments we say we're going to do something and then we don't enforce it. And that is, again, a mixed message that I think has been sent in the case of North Korea and our expectations of China," he said.
"I think we have to be clear eyed as to how far China will go and not get overly optimistic as to how far they'll go. And that's why ultimately it's going to require a new approach with China in order for China to understand our expectations of them, going beyond certainly what they have in the past which has fallen short," he asserted.
Tillerson assured lawmakers of US' commitment with regard to the defence of South Korea and Japan.
"We have longstanding ally commitments with Japan and South Korea in the area. And I think we would respond in accordance with those accords, which are not a NATO-type agreement. But certainly, we have made commitments to Japan in terms of a guarantee of their defence," he said.
He also hit out at China for serious human rights violations.
(With PTI inputs)