Chinese state media have warned U.S. that blocking China from the islands it has built in the South China Sea would lead to “devastating confrontation.”
The angered response from Beijing came after Rex Tillerson, the nominee for the critical post of Secretary of State said that the U.S. should deny China access to new islands in the contested waters of the South China Sea.
Editorials from the two state-run newspapers sharply criticized the comments made by Mr. Tillerson.
The Global Times tabloid warned that any such action would lead to “a large-scale war.”
China has been building artificial islands on reefs in contested waters also claimed by some other nations. According to the images published late last year by a think-tank, military defenses can be seen on some of the islands.
Mr. Tillerson, who was speaking at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, was harsh in his criticism of China. He linked the building of new islands to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
“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.”
The official response from China was muted. Lu Kang, Foreign Ministry Spokesman, said that China had the right to conduct “normal activities” in its own territory. He stated that he would not respond to a hypothetical question on asked specifically about Tillerson’s remark on block access.
The editorials in the Chinese media were more direct and threatening in their comments.
The China Daily suggested that the comments from Mr. Tillerson showed ignorance of Sino-U.S. relations and diplomacy in general. It said that comments should not be taken seriously as they represent “unrealistic fantasies.”
“Should he [Mr. Tillerson] act on them in the real world, it would be disastrous. As many have observed, it would set a course for devastating confrontation between China and the US. After all, how can the US deny China access to its own territories without inviting the latter’s legitimate, defensive responses?”
A nationalist Daily, The Global Times suggested that the “astonishing” comments from Mr. Tillerson came because he wanted to curry the favor of Senators and have his nomination confirmed by intentionally showing a tougher stance on China. The editorial went on to add that China would make sure the “rabble rousing” would not succeed.
“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.”
The Obama administration has spoken strongly against island building, pledged to ensure freedom of navigation and send U.S. Navy ships to the contested waters. It has not, however, threatened to block China access to the islands.
Mr. Tillerson didn’t explain how the U.S. plans to block access to the island, and both the Chinese paper suggested that it is yet to be seen how much of what Mr. Tillerson said translates into U.S. foreign policy.