April 26, 2017 0359 GMT
Tillerson made the comments during his confirmation hearing before the US Senate on Wednesday, describing as “extremely worrisome” China’s building of artificial islands in the disputed areas.
“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,” he said, without specifying how the United States could enforce such a ban.
The former chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil — the world’s largest producer of publicly traded oil and gas — said Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea would be a threat to the “entire global economy,” and blamed the situation on what he called 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.”
Trump’s nominee for the post of secretary of state also claimed that China’s actions in the contested territories of the South China Sea were “illegal,” and “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine.
China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea, through which 6.5 trillion dollars in shipping trade passes annually. The sea is also claimed in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
While some of those rival claimants, such as the Philippines, have been handling their differences with China smoothly, the US stands accused of needlessly heightening tensions in a region it does not belong to.
An East-West relationship hanging in the balance
Washington has previously reacted to China’s island building by deploying warships in the vicinity of the islands and flying fighter jets over them, moves that have angered Beijing.
China says the US is “militarizing the region” and that the disputed areas have historically been its territory.
Trump, himself a businessman-turned-politician with no background in government or diplomacy, has showed an inclination to irritate China by threatening to impose very high tariffs on goods imported from the Asian economic powerhouse. China is the largest exporter of goods to the US, holding hundreds of billions of US national debt.
Trump has also challenged Chinese sovereignty on Taiwan, a highly sensitive issue for Beijing
The remarks by Trump’s pick for secretary of state are now likely to further strengthen speculation that the next US administration will be all but friendly to China.
Tillerson also said during his confirmation hearing that the US could not continue to accept “empty promises” from China to pressure North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs.
He warned that Beijing pursues its “own goals” and has not sufficiently helped to rein in a nuclear-armed Pyongyang. “It has not been a reliable partner in using its full influence to curb North Korea,” Tillerson said.
The former corporate titan, however, said disagreements between the US and China on some issues should not hinder “productive partnership” on other matters.
“We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership,” he said, adding that, “The economic well-being of our two nations is deeply intertwined.”
China and the US view each other as simultaneous partners and adversaries on world issues. Relations between the two economic heavyweights have generally been stable although there have been periods of open conflict, most notably during the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
But while the US administration-in-waiting’s relations with China are commonly believed to be headed for strain, ties with Russia are generally expected to thrive under Trump. In fact, Tillerson has been criticized by some US politicians for his business ties with Russia in his former capacity as the chief of ExxonMobil. In the Wednesday confirmation hearing, he was grilled over such ties.