On February 1, Rex Tillerson was sworn in as President Donald Trump’s secretary of state—a role which is shaping up to be one of the toughest jobs in the world. The former CEO of Exxon Mobil, who will help guide the new administration’s “America first” foreign policy, was confirmed by the Senate in a narrow 56 to 43 vote, in part due to concerns over his ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Tillerson will not only be dealing with “combined Russian-separatist forces” in the Ukraine, but also with a rebellion of dissenters at the U.S. State Department who oppose the temporary travel ban on seven majority Muslim nations. He will also need to reexamine Obama’s refugee deal with close ally Australia, economic ties with Mexico, and consider drawing a line in the sand with Iran. With all these issues on his plate, Tillerson and his State Department may soon be overwhelmed as more countries choose to test the new administration’s foreign policy, including China in the East and South China Seas.
Although much of his testimony during the confirmation process focused on Tillerson’s ties to Russia, the former oil executive also sent confrontational messages to leaders in Beijing, including the ominous: “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.”
Tillerson also reiterated Beijing’s building and placing military equipment on the contested South China Sea islands were “illegal actions” and “extremely worrisome,” arguing “They’re taking territory or control, or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s,” while adding the territorial grabs were “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine.
Tillerson has also shown a strong tendency to distance himself from the previous administration’s foreign policy toward China, blaming the continued Chinese aggression on a soft Washington: “The failure of a response has allowed them just to keep pushing the envelope on this,” Tillerson said, adding, “The way we’ve got to deal with this is we’ve got to show back up in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia.” To be fair, the Obama Administration, under its “pivot to Asia,” did deploy greater military assets in the region, but their actions were limited to bomber flyovers, breaches by fighter jets of Beijing’s self-declared “air defense identification zones” and naval patrols to assert the right of free navigation.
Tillerson also commented on Beijing’s relationship with North Korea, arguing for the U.S. not to rely on empty promises from China to pressure Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs – saying “It has not been a reliable partner in using its full influence to curb North Korea.” Tillerson also made the case for secondary sanctions to be imposed on Chinese entities found to be violating existing U.N. sanctions.
Some of Tillerson’s other prepared comments on China (59:10 on C-Span) include:
“We should also acknowledge the realities about China. China’s island-building in the South China Sea is an illegal taking of disputed areas without regard for international norms.”
“China’s economic and trade practices have not always followed its commitments to global agreements. It steals our intellectual property, and is aggressive and expansionist in the digital realm.”
“China has proven a willingness to act with abandon in the pursuit of its own goals, which at times has put it in conflict with America’s interests. We have to deal with what we see, not what we hope. But we need to see the positive dimensions in our relationship with China as well. The economic well-being of our two nations is deeply intertwined. China has been a valuable ally in curtailing certain elements of radical Islam. We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership.”
While Mr. Tillerson has seemingly stayed on message with President-elect Trump’s hawkish views on China, exactly how the Pentagon would preclude China from accessing the islands it has built and now controls was not made clear. What is clear is Beijing’s reaction to the statement. In an editorial by the state-owned China Daily, Tillerson’s remarks were “not worth taking seriously because they are a mish-mash of naivety, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices, and unrealistic political fantasies. Should he act on them in the real world, it would be disastrous.” An editorial in the Global Times, another state-run nationalistic newspaper, warned of a “large-scale war” should the U.S. attempt to block China from the islands, arguing:
In the election runup and with the nomination of cabinet posts we have certainly heard some heated rhetoric thrown at China, and Tillerson is no exception. Yet until the new administration develops and agrees upon any plan of action, we still have no idea whether or how these “unrealistic political fantasies” will become reality (or lost in contentious debate) – or merely intended to appease an aggrieved nationalistic audience at home.
In a recent and lengthy letter (PDF) to Senator Ben Cardin, Tillerson seemed to back off from his threat of force to prevent China from accessing islands it occupies, saying:
“To expand on the discussion of U.S. policy options in the South China Sea, the United States seeks peaceful resolution of disputes and does not take a position on overlapping sovereignty claims, but the United States also does not recognize China’s excessive claims to the waters and airspace of the South China Sea. China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce its neighbors or limit freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea. The United States will uphold freedom of navigation and overflight by continuing to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. If a contingency occurs, the United States and its allies and partners must be capable of limiting China’s access to and use of its artificial islands to pose a threat to the United States or its allies and partners.”
His latest statements largely reflect previous U.S. State Department and U.S. Navy policy under the Obama administration, but leave room for action following a “contingency.” How the new Trump administration defines and reacts to this future “contingency” we can only hope will be heavily debated among all the concerned parties.