President Donald Trump’s administration promised on Monday that the US would stop China from taking over land in international waters in the South China Sea, but seemed to back off more hawkish claims made by secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson at a senate hearing.
“I think the US is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country,” said Spicer referring to China’s unlawfully claimed and militarised islands in the South China Sea, where an estimated $5 trillion in shipping passes annually.
This statement stops short of Tillerson’s earlier comment that the US should “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.”
Tillerson’s comment drew fierce rebuke from Chinese state-run media and US-based China watchers as well, with Chinese media saying that “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.”
At the time, Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider that she heard “from some people on the transition team that he misspoke.”
Glaser also agreed that Tillerson’s suggested moves in the South China Sea were impractical, and that the US would “certainly end up in a shooting war with China.”
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