Rex Tillerson, former Exxon Mobil CEO and US President Elect Donald Trump’s pick for his ‘Secretary of State’, has told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China will not be allowed to build more islands in the South China Sea and at the same time, will not be allowed access to those islands it has already built.
During his confirmation hearing, Tillerson said that ‘he is 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’, a Reuters report said.
He compared Chinese acts in the South China Sea to the Russian aggression in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. The Reuters report quoting him said that Tillerson considered China’s South China Sea activity “extremely worrisome” and that it would be a threat to the “entire global economy” if Beijing were able to dictate access to the waterway.
CHINA DISMISSES TILLERSON’S REMARKS
The spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Lu Kong, has dismissed Tillerson’s words ‘as hypothetical’ in his initial response while asserting the Chinese supremacy over the South China Sea. Lu Kong said that the situation in the South China Sea has cooled down as countries in the region have come round to the agreement. We hope that countries outside the region will respect such an agreement that serves the common interests of the region and beyond.
BUT CHINESE EXPERTS WARN THE US
While Lu Kong said that Tillerson’s words didn’t matter, Chinese experts have warned that China is going to retaliate heavily to any US attempt to block China access to the South China Sea.
South China Morning Post wrote ‘what’s been built has been built’, quoting Wu Xinbo, head of American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University. It quoted another expert as saying “China is not Cuba, and the South China Sea is not the Caribbean. The South China Sea is not under the US sphere of influence, it’s China’s territorial waters.”
South China Morning Post is a prominent English language newspaper of China and is now controlled by Hangzhou based e-commerce giant Alibaba Group. And we know that nothing appears in the Chinese media, especially on international policy matters like this, without the state approval.
SETTING A CONFRONTATIONAL TONE?
Though analysts have pointed out that it may be Tillerson’s personal opinion and he would have said so to hide his inexperience in diplomatic affairs, when we see it in the context of what Donald Trump has been saying about China, Tillerson’s words well may be the indication of the things to come.
Trump has been targeting China pre or post his election, especially on trade imbalances and the loss of US jobs to China. He quotes Russia and China when he makes pitch for military and nuclear expansion of the US. He became the first US President-Elect in decades to defy the US policy of following One China norm and called the Taiwanese President angering Beijing. China considers Taiwan as its renegade province.
Territorial dispute in the South China Sea involves seven countries, i.e., China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. A busy trade route passes through it and all other countries except China are in favour of keeping its status as free, international waters. China wants to control it as it imports most of its oil through this trade route. Doing so would enable China to establish hegemony in East and Southeast Asia that no other country involved in the dispute is capable of.
Also, it would keep foreign military forces like the US away from the region. The US Navy has a sizeable presence in the South China Sea and it routinely carries out patrols in the area to deter the Chinese efforts maintaining that the South China Sea waters remain free for international navigation. China doesn’t recognize these claims including the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and says China exercises control over these areas since ancient times and if there is any dispute it should be resolved by the countries directly concerned as Lu Kong said in his press briefing today.