Tillerson on course for conflict with Beijing over South China Sea

Trump nominee proposes blocking China from artificial islands in contested region

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in a still image from video taken by a US surveillance aircraft, in May 2015. Photograph: US Navy/Handout via Reuters

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in a still image from video taken by a US surveillance aircraft, in May 2015. Photograph: US Navy/Handout via Reuters

 

Beijing reacted in muted fashion after US president-elect Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, challenged China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and said it should be denied access to the artificial islands it has built in the contested maritime region.

The prospect of a US embargo on the artificial islands it has built upon South China Sea reefs, equipped with military-length airstrips and anti-aircraft missiles, is sure to enrage China, although the Trump team has been low on detail on how exactly this would happen.

“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,” Mr Tillerson, formerly head of the oil giant Exxon Mobil, said during his confirmation hearing.

“They are taking territory or control or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s,” he said, going on to say that China’s “building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea”.

Beijing considers pretty much all of the South China Sea, through which about €4.75 trillion in trade passes every year, as its sovereign territory, despite an international tribunal in The Hague rejecting Beijing’s claims.

These claims have increased tensions with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and self-ruled Taiwan, which this week scrambled fighters after China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

The reaction to Mr Tillerson’s comments has been relatively restrained so far.

“China has indisputable rights to operate normal activities in its sovereign territory in the South China Sea,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily news briefing.

“When Donald Trump was elected, he had a call after the election with President Xi Jinping. His team later made an announcement to develop and co-operate with China on the basis of mutual respect,” said Mr Lu.

Tensions in the area had cooled because of dialogue and countries that are not in the region should work to help support efforts to bring stability, he said.

Mr Tillerson’s position is hardly news to the Chinese.

Last month Mr Trump tweeted: “Did China ask us if it was okay . . . to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”.

Mr Tillerson also said Washington needed to reaffirm its commitment to Taiwan, which Beijing considers sovereign territory. However, he gave no indication on plans to abandon the one-China policy , where Washington has diplomatic ties with mainland China and does not recognise Taiwan as a country, while maintaining good relations.

“I don’t know of any plans to alter the ‘one China’ position,” he said.

Mr Trump took a congratulatory call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, whom China considers independence-minded.

China needed to be held accountable for its actions with its ally North Korea, he said.