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Trump choice to State: China should be denied access to South China Sea islands

Images of China's airstrip on Fiery Cross (Reuters file)
The online news portal of TV5

The United States must send a clear signal to China that its island-building in the contested South China Sea must stop and that its access to those islands will not be allowed, US President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state said on Wednesday.

In comments certain to enrage Beijing, Rex Tillerson told his confirmation hearing before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China's building of islands and putting military assets on those islands was "akin to Russia’s taking Crimea.”

Asked whether he supported a more aggressive posture toward China, he said: “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.”

The former Exxon Mobil Corp. chairman and chief executive did not elaborate on what might be done to deny China access to the islands it has built up from South China Sea reefs and equipped with military-length airstrips and fortified with weapons.

Tillerson said the United States needed to reaffirm its commitment to Taiwan, a country which Beijing regards as a renegade province, but stopped short of Trump's questioning of Washington's long-standing policy on the issue.

"I don’t know of any plans to alter the 'one China' position," he said.

Tillerson said he considered China’s activity in the South China Sea "extremely worrisome" and that it would be a threat to the "entire global economy" if Beijing were able to dictate access to the waterway, which is of strategic military importance and a major trade route.

He blamed the current situation on what he termed an inadequate US response. "The failure of a response has allowed them just to keep pushing the envelope on this," Tillerson said.

"The way we’ve got to deal with this is we’ve got to show back up in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia, and I think use the existing structure to begin the re-engagement," he said.

Tillerson characterized both China's island-building in the South China Sea and declaration of an air defense zone in waters of the East China Sea it contests with Japan as "illegal actions."

"They’re taking territory or control, or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s," he said. "Building islands and putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking Crimea (from Ukraine). It’s taking of territory that others lay claim to."

Tillerson also said the United States could not continue to accept "empty promises" China had made about putting pressure on North Korea over that country's nuclear and missile programs.

He also accused China of failing to live up to global agreements on trade and intellectual property, echoing past remarks by Trump, who has threatened to impose high, retaliatory tariffs on China.

"China has proven a willingness to act with abandon in the pursuit of its own goals, which at times has put it at conflict with American interests. We have to deal with what we see, not what we hope," he said.

At the same time. Tillerson said, it was important to see "the positive dimensions" of the US relationship with China, the world's second-largest economy after the United States.

"The economic wellbeing of our two nations is deeply intertwined," he said, adding that China had also been an important ally in curbing elements of radical Islam.

"We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership," he said.