Foreign affairs:  Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, testifies on Wednesday before a Senate foreign relations committee in Washington. The committee held a confirmation hearing on his nomination to be US secretary of state. Picture: REUTERS
Foreign affairs: Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, testifies on Wednesday before a Senate foreign relations committee in Washington. The committee held a confirmation hearing on his nomination to be US secretary of state. Picture: REUTERS

Beijing — China offered a muted response on Thursday after Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, warned that the US would stop it from using its artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Tillerson’s comments, made during his confirmation hearing in the Senate, are the latest salvo the US president-elect’s team has aimed at Beijing.

"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.

Beijing has fuelled regional tension by turning tiny, ecologically fragile reefs and islets in the strategically vital South China Sea into artificial islands hosting military facilities.

The former ExxonMobil CEO said China’s building in the disputed waters and its declaration of an air defence identification zone over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea were "illegal actions". The Senkaku islands are controlled by Japan.

"They are taking territory or control, or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s," he said.

Beijing asserts a claim to almost the whole of the South China Sea. But an international tribunal, whose jurisdiction Beijing rejected, ruled in 2016 there was no legal basis for the claim.

Tillerson added that "building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea".

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang offered a measured response to the comments during a regular news briefing, saying China had "the full right" to conduct activities in the region.

"The South China Sea situation has cooled down and we hope nonregional countries can respect the consensus that it is in the fundamental interest of the whole world," he said.

At face value, Tillerson’s threat to deny access to China was not a "credible objective" for the US and might be counterproductive, Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said.

The US had military power in Asia but relatively few ships, making a blockade unrealistic. "It’s very difficult to imagine the means by which the US could prevent China from accessing these artificial islands without provoking confrontation."

Tillerson also said the US should affirm to Taipei that it would live up to its commitments to Taiwan, which could require the US to intervene militarily if China attacked the island, but added that he did not know of any plans to alter the One China policy.

AFP

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