Tillerson: China Should Be Denied Access to South China Sea Islands

During his Wednesday confirmation hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson declared “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.” Tillerson also said that taking the islands was akin to Russia taking Crimea. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to detail China’s response to such U.S. action because it is a hypothetical situation.

The Cipher Take: Though Beijing has not issued a public response, Tillerson’s comments are likely to have ruffled some feathers. China considers the islands it has “reclaimed” and the seas around them as sovereign territory, and any U.S. action—though Tillerson did not elaborate on what type of action he would consider—would be seen by Beijing as a violation of sovereignty. Tillerson’s Crimea comparison is also not quite accurate: Ukraine’s borders were recognized by international law and international bodies, whereas the geographical features that China turned into artificial islands were previously uninhabited and are claimed by multiple other countries. The international community does not recognize a sovereign claim over any of them. Though it may be too early to assume that Tillerson’s statements are indicative of any future concrete policy, this certainly exacerbates an already rough start in relations between the incoming administration and Beijing.


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