Chinese Paper Calls Tillerson’s South Sea Threat ‘Foolish’

  • State media hit back at secretary of state pick’s tough talk
  • Editorials offer more pointed response than government

China Pushes Back Against Tillerson

China’s state media rebuffed a suggestion by President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state that Beijing must be denied access to reclaimed reefs in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

“Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent China access to the islands will be foolish,” the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper wrote in an editorial. The English-language China Daily took a similar line: “It is certainly no small matter for a man intended to be the U.S. diplomat in chief to display such undisguised animosity toward China.”

In his Wednesday confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rex Tillerson compared China’s actions in the South China Sea to those of Russia in Crimea, saying a failure to respond had allowed it to “keep pushing the envelope” in the 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 is also not going to be allowed,” Tillerson said.

Should the former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive’s remarks reflect future U.S. policy, it would represent a fundamental shift toward a more confrontational response to Beijing’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea. In recent years, China has reclaimed thousands of acres of land and shooed away boats from other claimant states like the Philippines and Vietnam.

China’s official response was relatively mild, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang saying Thursday that “like the U.S., China has the right within its own territory to carry out normal activities.” The People’s Daily newspaper last month argued for “strategic composure,” and urged policy makers to remain calm in response to criticisms from the Trump camp before he takes office.

Read more: an explainer on the territorial disputes simmering around China

This aerial photo taken on January 2, 2017 shows a Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning (C), during military drills in the South China Sea.The aircraft carrier is one of the latest steps in the years-long build-up of China's military, as Beijing seeks greater global power to match its economic might and asserts itself more aggressively in its own backyard. / AFP / STR / China OUT (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, during military drills in the South China Sea.

Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. has followed a long-held policy of not taking a position on the claims of any countries in the South China Sea while defending the freedom of navigation for vessels from all nations.

Tillerson didn’t say how the U.S. would stop China from building on the features, prevent it from accessing them or how it would treat other countries trying to access their land features in the waters. That raised speculation that he had spoken out of turn and that his comments didn’t reflect a fully evolved policy position of the incoming Trump administration.

Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, retired General James Mattis, bolstered that interpretation at his own Senate hearing Thursday, in which he said that the State, Treasury and Defense departments should coordinate their South China Sea policies. “We’re going to have to integrate this, so that we’re not dealing with an incomplete or incoherent strategy,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Even China’s state media gave Tillerson the benefit of the doubt. “It remains to be seen to what extent his views against China will translate into U.S. foreign policies,” China Daily wrote. “His remarks at the Wednesday hearing, sensational as they were, turned out to be of little reference value except for judging his personal orientations.”

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