WASHINGTON, D.C.: Donald Trump’s secretary of state pick Rex Tillerson hit out at China Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) during his Senate confirmation hearing, warning the US would send a “clear signal” that the Asian giant must abandon its artificial islands in the South China Sea.
“We’re going to have to 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,” Tillerson told a US Senate committee.
Beijing has fuelled regional tensions by turning tiny, ecologically fragile reefs and islets in the strategically vital South China Sea into artificial islands hosting military facilities.
The former ExxonMobil chief said China’s building in the disputed waters and its declaration of an air defense identification zone over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands in the East China Sea were “illegal actions.”
“They are taking territory or control or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s.”
Beijing asserts a claim to almost the whole of the South China Sea, which the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea, based on a “nine-dash line” dating to 1940s-era maps.
An international tribunal – whose jurisdiction Beijing rejected – ruled last year on a suit lodged by the Philippines that there was no legal basis to such claims.
Apart from the Philippines, other countries that have overlapping claims in the South China Sea are Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia.
‘Wait and see’
Malacañang on Thursday said it would adopt in the meantime a “wait-and-see” approach on Trump’s policy on the South China Sea dispute.
“The remarks of Mr. Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing before the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee reflect his personal beliefs and should be respected,” Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said in a statement.
“The reasonable response is to wait and see what the new administration’s policy pronouncements will be,” he added.
The Palace official reiterated that the Duterte government was committed to pursue a peaceful resolution to the dispute with China.
“What is important is for both sides to remain committed to peace and stability in this part of the world and to refrain from any and all acts that would jeopardize freedom of navigation and overflights along this vital sea lane,” Andanar said.
On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said the Philippines, as chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, would intensify efforts to fast-track discussions on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and eventually complete the long-delayed framework for a Code of Conduct in the contested waters.
WITH A REPORT FROM CATHERINE S. VALENTE