CHINA’S state-run media warned the United States on Friday there would be war if it moved to block China’s access to islands in the contested West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
“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 Global Times said in an editorial.
China Daily took a similar line, saying: “It would set a course for devastating confrontation between China and the US. After all, how can the US deny China access to its own territories without inviting the latter’s legitimate, defensive responses?”
The newspapers were responding to US Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson’s remarks in a confirmation hearing in Washington on Thursday, that China must be denied access to reefs it had reclaimed in the disputed waters.
China has irreversibly destroyed South China Sea reefs and turned them into artificial islets, despite overlapping claims by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
A July 12, 2016 international arbitration ruling favored the Philippines and declared China’s claims, based on the so-called “nine-dash line” demarcation line, without legal basis.
Before US senators, Tillerson likened China’s island-building to “Russia’s taking of Crimea” that allowed them to “keep pushing the envelope” in the waters because of the failure of outside parties to intervene.
“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 executive said during his confirmation hearing.
It remains a question whether President-elect Donald Trump’s bet will get through the scrutiny of the Senate foreign relations committee, with some observers claiming the nomination was likely to be vetoed.
Global Times said that if Tillerson’s statements became US foreign policy, “the two sides had better prepare for a military clash.”
“China has enough determination and strength to make sure that his rabble-rousing will not succeed,” it wrote.
Nonetheless, China Daily said Tillerson’s “intimidating” remarks were “not worth taking seriously,” describing it as “a mish-mash of naivety, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices and unrealistic political fantasies.”
“Should he act on them in the real world, it would be disastrous,” it added.
Despite their wide influence, the newspapers’ strongly worded editorials do not necessarily reflect Chinese policy.
The official response from the Chinese Foreign ministry was tamer, with a spokesman stating that Beijing-Washington relations were based on “non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation.”
“[China’s policy] serves the common interests and meets the shared aspiration of countries in the region to maintain peace and stability of the South China Sea, properly manage differences and work for common development. Outsiders should respect that. We cannot be any clearer on that,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a news conference in Beijing on Thursday or prior to the publication of the editorials.
The Philippines is also not keen on confronting China despite its island-building and supposed militarization in the disputed waters.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. told reporters in Manila earlier this week a legally binding framework for the code of conduct of Southeast Asian nations and China in the South China Sea would be completed in the middle of the year.
Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar reiterated that the Duterte administration was committed to pursue a peaceful resolution to the maritime dispute with China.