Tillerson ‘Emphatic’ About Need to Halt South China Sea Buildup

  • Top U.S. diplomat delivers message at Asean ministers meeting
  • U.S. favors talks to solve territorial disputes in area

Tillerson Calls for Halt of South China Sea Buildup

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered an “emphatic” message to foreign ministers from Southeast Asian nations that militarization and construction in the South China Sea must stop while territorial disputes in the area are worked out, a senior U.S. official said.

Tillerson delivered the message -- aimed at China, which has reclaimed thousands of acres of land in the South China Sea in recent years -- during a lunch Thursday with ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Washington.

Rex Tillerson with ASEAN foreign ministers at a luncheon in Washington on May 4.

Photographer: Nicolas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The top U.S. diplomat urged “all parties involved to stop militarization, construction, reclamation of land in the South China Sea while talks are going on,” Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said on a call with reporters. “The secretary was quite emphatic about the need to stop these activities to give talks a good chance of succeeding.”

Tillerson’s remarks were more moderate toward China than President Donald Trump’s comments during the campaign, when he called out Beijing over its reef reclamation, currency manipulation and trade policies.

Since then, Trump has made clear he’s counting on cooperation with Beijing to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program and praised his relationship with President Xi Jinping, a move that could undercut any tough message from the State Department.

For a QuickTake on disputes in the South China Sea, click here

In his confirmation hearing in January, Tillerson compared China’s actions in the South China Sea to those of Russia in Crimea, saying a failure to respond had let China “keep pushing the envelope.”

“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, in remarks that critics said invited a military confrontation. He hasn’t repeated that formulation since then.

The U.S. is not a claimant in the South China Sea but has urged talks to solve the disputes. Southeast Asian nations are in talks with China for a code of conduct covering the waters, though progress has been slow.

During the meeting with Tillerson, the ministers stressed the importance of the peaceful resolution of the disputes, according to an Asean statement.

“We reiterated the principles previously agreed by our leaders and we call for the early agreement on the framework and expeditious conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea,” the ministers said in the statement. A summit in Manila last weekend of Asean leaders ended with a statement noting “the improving cooperation between Asean and China” over the waterway.

Murphy said the U.S. would continue the Navy’s “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea, though he declined to say when that might occur. Such operations, which have typically produced protests from Beijing, haven’t been undertaken since Trump took office, according to a Pentagon official who asked not to be identified discussing military movements.

“Our objectives remain very firm in this regard, and the United States will continue to assert its rights in the South China Sea,” Murphy said.

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