The new US administration of President Donald Trump vowed on Monday the United States would prevent China from taking over territory in international waters in the South China Sea, something Chinese state media has warned would require Washington to “wage war.”
The comments at a briefing from White House spokesman Sean Spicer signaled a sharp departure from years of cautious US handling of China’s assertive pursuit of territorial claims in Asia, just days after Trump took office on Friday.
“The US is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” Spicer said when asked if Trump agreed with comments by his secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson. On January 11, Tillerson said China should not be allowed access to islands it has built in the contested South China Sea.
“It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country,” he said.
China responded on Tuesday, saying the United Sates was not a party to dispute in the South China Sea.
“We urge the United States to respect the facts, speak and act cautiously to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Tillerson’s remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing prompted Chinese state media to say at the time that the United States would need to “wage war” to bar China’s access to the islands where it has built military-length air strips and installed weapons systems.
Tillerson was asked at the hearing whether he supported a more aggressive posture toward China and 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.
But analysts said his comments, like those of Spicer, suggested the possibility of US military action, or even a naval blockade. Such action would risk an armed confrontation with China, an increasingly formidable nuclear-armed military power. It is also the world’s second-largest economy and the target of Trump accusations it is stealing American jobs.
Spicer declined to elaborate when asked how the United States could enforce such a move against China, except to say: “I think, as we develop further, we’ll have more information on it.”
Tillerson narrowly won approval from a Senate committee on Monday and is expected to win confirmation from the full Senate.