China Hits Out at Tillerson Threats, Warns of 'Major War'

china-tillerson-011317.jpg Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson testifies before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Jan. 11, 2017.

Chinese state media hit out on Friday at comments made by secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, who said the U.S. could move to block Chinese access to artificial islands it made in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

In comments to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Tillerson said China's island-building on or near disputed island chains is "illegal," comparing it with Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

"First, the island building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed," Tillerson said in comments aimed at Beijing.

The English-language tabloid Global Times newspaper on Friday hit out at Tillerson's comments in an editorial on Friday, warning that he had better "bone up on his nuclear strategy."

The paper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said war was a likely outcome from any attempt at military intervention on its doorstep.

"Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish," the paper said.

"The U.S. has no absolute power to dominate the South China Sea," it said, warning: "Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories."

"China has enough determination and strength to make sure that his rabble rousing will not succeed."

Currying favor

But Ran Bogong, former politics professor at Toledo University, said Tillerson was likely using China-bashing as a way of currying favor with the Senate, which can still veto his appointment.

"He is acting tough on China so as to look good in the eyes of Senators," Ran said. But he said the Trump administration is unlikely to usher in a new era of tensions with Beijing.

"During his election campaign, Trump showed a very hard-line attitude towards China, and he also took that phone call from [Taiwan president] Tsai Ing-wen after he won," Ran said.

"But we haven't heard anything at all from Trump on Twitter since Tsai transited the U.S. [in an individual capacity], and nobody from his team will meet with her," he said.

"This suggests that the president-elect's approach is changing in favor of more caution," Ran said.

The war of words came as Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen began a visit to the Americas this week, after Beijing protested her unofficial trip to the United States.

Tsai won't be meeting with president-elect Donald Trump, or any of his team.

While the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan, it regards the democratic island as a province of China awaiting reunification, and has threatened to invade if its government seeks formal statehood.

Beijing reacted furiously when Trump took a phone call from Tsai congratulating him on his election victory.

Ties to Russia, China

According to Xia Ming, political science professor at the College of Staten Island in New York, said there are public concerns that Tillerson, as former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, could be on too-friendly terms with Russia and China.

"That's why he had to say some hawkish things about China and Russia during his confirmation hearing," he said.

Xia said tensions in the resource-rich South China Sea could escalate under the Trump administration, however.

"These are important shipping routes for world trade," he said. "There are key U.S. allies in the region, like Japan, and the U.S. has military bases on some of its allies' territories."

The Global Times said Tillerson may have engaged in deliberate posturing to impress Senators, but that it is unclear whether bilateral ties will suffer at this stage.

"Probably he just has oil prices and currency rates in his mind as former Exxon Mobil CEO," it said, calling his comments "far from professional."

"The U.S. should not be misled into thinking that Beijing will be fearful of their threats."

Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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