US state secretary nominee Tillerson expected to say China's island building in South China Sea is illegal

Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas.
Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - President-elect Donald Trump's secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson will voice concern over China in his confirmation hearing on Wednesday (Jan 11), calling Beijing's building of islands in the South China Sea illegal.

The Trump transition team had circulated Mr Tillerson's opening statement to be delivered during his Senate confirmation hearing.

LIke Mr Trump, Mr Tillerson will express a dim view of China's aggressive moves in the disputed waters such as its building of an island to serve as a military base.

"China's island-building in the South China Sea is an illegal taking of disputed areas without regard for international norms," he will say.

As Mr Trump adopts from President Barack Obama the challenge of containing North Korea's nuclear program, Mr Tillerson will signal a move to exert more pressure on China to help.

"We cannot continue to accept empty promises like the ones China has made to pressure North Korea to reform, only to shy away from enforcement. Looking the other way when trust is broken only encourages more bad behaviour. And it must end," Mr Tillerson is expected to say.

He will also fault China for stealing US intellectual property but reiterate that China is a valuable ally.

"We need to see the positive dimensions in our relationship with China as well," he will say. "The economic well-being of our two nations is deeply intertwined. China has been a valuable ally in curtailing elements of radical Islam. We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership."

The circulated statement also showed that Mr Tillerson will explain to some extent why Mr Trump has been in favour of a warmer relationship with Moscow, saying Washington needs an open and frank dialogue with Russia on its ambition in order for the United States to chart its own course.

But his rhetoric expressing concern about Russia goes beyond Mr Trump's own frequent expressions of the need for better ties with Russia after what he feels was a bungling of the relationship by Mr Obama.

"Our Nato allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia," Mr Tillerson will say. "But it was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent."

He will cite Mr Obama's failure to act against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people, after saying in 2012 that doing so would cross a "red line" as a weak signal to Moscow.

"We backtracked on commitments we made to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals with 'red lines' that turned into green lights. We did not recognise that Russia does not think like we do."

Mr Tillerson's confirmation hearing comes at a time of rising tensions with Russia over its role in the US presidential election and an assessment by US intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the hacks of political figures in an effort to help Mr Trump win the Nov 8 election. Moscow has denied the allegations.

The secretary of state nominee will also say that challenges posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), China, North Korea and Iran represent new global realities that must be addressed with an assertive United States.

"To achieve the stability that is foundational to peace and security in the 21st century, American leadership must not only be renewed, it must be asserted," he will say.

Meantime. the Wall Street Journal reported that Mr Tillerson, the wealthy former CEO of Exxon-Mobil Corp., plans to use an unusual interpretation of US tax law to spread out taxes owed on his retirement package over the next decade instead of paying more than US$70 million (S$100.6 million) immediately.

The Journal said the move could save him more than US$10 million if Mr Trump gets through the US Congress a tax reform plan that cuts individual tax rates.