Nominee for US secretary of state Rex Tillerson uttered astonishing statements during his confirmation hearing with the Senate on Wednesday. He likened China's island-building in the South China Sea to "Russia's taking of Crimea," and said the new US government would send China a clear signal that "first the island building stops, and second your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed."
Due to his intimate relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tillerson is the most controversial candidate among President-elect Donald Trump
's nominees for his cabinet and is considered the one most likely to be vetoed by the Senate.
It is suspected that he merely wanted to curry favor from senators and increase his chances of being confirmed by intentionally showing a tough stance toward China.
Tillerson did not give details of how he would achieve his self-proclaimed goals. Nonetheless, he also mentioned that Chinese and American economic interests are deeply intertwined and that "China has been a valuable ally in curtailing elements of radical Islam." He noted that "We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership."
It is not clear which point, among the many he made, he will prioritize. But it is worth looking at his remarks that China should not be allowed access to the islands, since this is the most radical statement from the US side so far.
China has enough determination and strength to make sure that his rabble rousing will not succeed. 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 US has no absolute power to dominate the South China Sea. Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories. Probably he just has oil prices and currency rates in his mind as former ExxonMobil CEO.
He also lacks legality. If China is not allowed access to islands it has long controlled, does this also apply to Vietnam and the Philippines? Should the Nansha Islands become a depopulated zone? What does so-called US freedom of navigation around the Nansha Islands mean?
As Trump has yet to be sworn in, China has shown restraint whenever his team members expressed radical views. But the US should not be misled into thinking that Beijing will be fearful of their threats.
Tillerson's statements regarding the islands in the South China Sea are far from professional. If Trump's diplomatic team shapes future Sino-US ties as it is doing now, the two sides had better prepare for a military clash.
South China Sea countries will accelerate their negotiations on a Code of Conduct. They have the ability to solve divergences by themselves without US interference. Just as the Philippines and Vietnam are trying to warm their ties with China, Tillerson's words cannot be more irritating.
It is hoped that Tillerson will desire a productive partnership with China more and his harsh words are just coaxing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But no matter what, China will always respond to various US diplomatic maneuvers.