Beijing asserts right in South China Sea

File photo of China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet conducting a drill in the South China Sea in December, 2016.
File photo of China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet conducting a drill in the South China Sea in December, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS
Secretary of state nominee Tillerson criticised China for failing to help rein in North Korea during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday in Washington.
Secretary of state nominee Tillerson criticised China for failing to help rein in North Korea during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday in Washington.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

US secretary of state nominee had vowed to curb China's actions in disputed area

BEIJING • China said it had the right to act in its own territory in the disputed South China Sea, after President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state said Beijing must be denied access to reclaimed reefs.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China has been acting within the limits of its sovereignty.

"Like the US, China has the right within its own territory to carry out normal activities," he said at a regular briefing in Beijing yesterday.

"The South China Sea situation has cooled down, and we hope non-regional countries can respect the consensus that it is in the fundamental interest of the whole world," he added.

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.

 
 

During his confirmation hearing in the US Senate on Tuesday, secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson said China's building in the disputed waters and its declaration of an air defence 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," the former ExxonMobil chief told the panel.

"We are 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," Mr Tillerson said.

He added that "building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia's taking of Crimea".

Beijing asserts a claim to almost the whole of the South China Sea, based on a "nine-dash line" dating to maps in the 1940s.

An international tribunal - whose jurisdiction Beijing rejected - ruled last year that there was no legal basis to such claims.

Mr Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said Mr Tillerson's threat to deny access to China is not a "credible objective" for the US and may be "counterproductive".

The US has military power in Asia but relatively few ships, he said, making a blockade unrealistic, and "it is very difficult to imagine the means by which the United States could prevent China from accessing these artificial islands without provoking some kind of confrontation".

Mr Tillerson's remarks came amid rising tensions between the two countries as President-elect Trump has suggested that Washington could jettison its decades- old "One China" policy, and the Chinese military has ramped up activities in a show of strength, with its Liaoning aircraft carrier passing through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday.

Mr Tillerson said the US should affirm to Taipei that it will live up to its commitments to Taiwan, which could require the US to intervene militarily if China attacks the island, but added that he did not know of any plans to alter the "One China" policy.

In his remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he also criticised China for failing to sufficiently help rein in North Korea. But Mr Tillerson said disagreements with Beijing on some issues should not preclude "productive partnership" on other matters.

"I do agree with him on that," Mr Lu said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2017, with the headline 'Beijing asserts right in South China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe