U.S. President-elect Donald Trump‘s nominee for secretary of state set a course for a potentially serious confrontation with Beijing on Wednesday, saying China should be denied access to islands it has built in the contested South China Sea.
In comments expected to enrage Beijing, Rex Tillerson told his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China’s building of islands and putting military assets on those islands was “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine.
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 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, equipped with military-length airstrips and fortified with weapons.
Trump’s transition team did not immediately respond to a request for specifics on how China might be blocked from the artificial islands.
Tillerson also said Washington needed to reaffirm its commitment to Taiwan, 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.