Before even being confirmed as secretary of state, Tillerson has managed to anger the Chinese state-run media by implying that the U.S. would potentially use military force to block China from its island-building project in the South China Sea. In his confirmation hearing yesterday, Tillerson said, “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.” His comments were received as intent to take a harder line on a delicate territorial conflict between a number of countries surrounding the waters, on which the Obama administration has pursued a diplomatic approach, going only as far as sailing ships into the disputed area to challenge China’s claims of exclusive ownership.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang has taken a conciliatory tone, saying, “China-U.S. relations are based on ‘non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation.’” But two of China’s state-sponsored media outlets have condemned Tillerson’s statements.
On a provocative starting note, the Global Times responded that threats of U.S. intervention in the South China Sea would be “foolish” unless Washington intended to “wage a large-scale war” with China. On the more subdued side, an editorial in China Daily wrote that Tillerson displayed “undisguised animosity toward China” and called his comments “a mish-mash of naivety, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices, and unrealistic political fantasies.”