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Tillerson vows to defend ‘durable’ ally Japan over Senkakus but notes Tokyo’s ‘obligations’

Kyodo, Reuters, AP

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson on Wednesday affirmed Washington’s commitment to the defense of Japan in the event that China attempts to seize the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

“We’ve made a commitment to Japan in terms of a guarantee of their defense,” Tillerson said during his Senate confirmation hearing, when asked about the U.S. response to any Chinese attempt to take the islets by force.

His remark underscored that the islets, claimed by China and Taiwan, fall under Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty. The affirmation came amid concern in Japan and among other U.S. allies about President-elect Donald Trump’s security commitments to those countries.

“We have long-standing ally commitments with Japan and South Korea in the area and I think we would respond in accordance with those accords,” Tillerson said, responding to a question by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Responding to a question by Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, Tillerson said Beijing’s unilateral declaration in 2013 of an air defense identification zone overlapping Japanese airspace over the Senkakus was “illegal.”

Earlier in the hearing, Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp., said U.S. alliances are “durable” and urged allies to play their part in managing them.

While noting U.S. allies “are looking for a return of our leadership,” he also mentioned the need to “hold our allies accountable to commitments they make.

“We cannot look the other way at allies who do not meet their obligations,” he said.

Trump repeatedly demanded during the presidential campaign that U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization cover more of the costs associated with stationing U.S. forces in their countries — or else defend themselves.

In the hearing, Tillerson criticized China’s “illegal” island-building in disputed waters in the South China Sea and its reluctance to fully exercise its influence on North Korea to curb the hermit country’s nuclear arms and missile programs.

China’s building of islands and putting military assets on those islands is “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine, he said.

Asked whether he supports a more aggressive posture toward China, Tillerson said: “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.”

He did not elaborate on what might be done to deny China access to the islands it built up from South China Sea reefs. They have since been equipped with military-length airstrips and fortified with weapons.

Tillerson also said Washington needed to reaffirm its commitment to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province, but stopped short of Trump’s questioning of Washington’s long-standing policy on the issue.

“I don’t know of any plans to alter the ‘one China’ position,” he said.

Tillerson said he considered China’s South China Sea activity “extremely worrisome” and that it would be a threat to the “entire global economy” if Beijing were able to dictate access to the waterway, which is of strategic military importance and a major trade route.

He blamed the current situation on what he termed an inadequate U.S. response. “The failure of a response has allowed them just to keep pushing the envelope on this,” Tillerson said.

“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,” he said.

Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration conducted periodic air and naval patrols to assert the right of free navigation in the South China Sea. These angered Beijing, but seeking to blockade China’s man-made islands would be a major step further, and one that Washington has never raised as an option.

Referring to U.S. interactions with China, which he said have been “both friendly and adversarial,” Tillerson called China’s assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea “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,” he said, adding that the country “steals our intellectual property and is aggressive and expansionist in the digital realm.”

Tillerson urged China — the main diplomatic and economic benefactor of North Korea — to strictly implement U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions so as to rein in North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and get Pyongyang to act in accordance with international rules and norms.

“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,” he said. “Looking the other way when trust is broken only encourages more bad behavior. And it must end.”

Asked about Trump’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, Tillerson said, “I do not oppose TPP.” But he also said that he shared some of Trump’s views about whether the pact, as negotiated, reflected all of the best interests of the United States.

Trump has pledged to withdraw the United States from the TPP, which involves Japan and 10 other nations, once he takes office on Jan. 20.

As if to dismiss concern that he has close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the secretary of state-designate appeared to take a tough stance toward Moscow as he did with Beijing and Pyongyang.

Tillerson said he will “never recognize” Russia’s unilateral annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and that the United States and other countries should maintain sanctions on Moscow.

The surprising shift in tone by Tillerson, decorated by Russia with the Order of Friendship, reflected the difficulty Trump will have in convincing Democrats and Republicans to broach a broad rapprochement with President Vladimir Putin’s government.

Calling Russia a “danger” to the United States, Tillerson said he would keep U.S. sanctions in place and consider new penalties related to Russian meddling in the presidential election.

Although he said he hadn’t read last week’s classified assessment by the U.S. intelligence community, Tillerson said it was a “fair assumption” that Putin would have ordered the operation that purportedly included hacking, propaganda and internet trolls to harm Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and advance Trump’s. But in a puzzling revelation, the oil man conceded he hadn’t yet talked with Trump about a Russia policy.

“Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests,” Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He added that Trump’s administration would be committed to the defense of America’s NATO partners, an obligation the president-elect called into question during the campaign if allies failed to meet defense spending pledges.

While his prepared statement reflected some of Trump’s desire for improved ties, Tillerson quickly pivoted under pressure from both sides of the aisle. On Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea region, he said, “That was a taking of territory that was not theirs.”

Still, he criticized President Barack Obama’s sanctions on Russia, which ended up costing Exxon hundreds of millions of dollars. He also declared that he would have responded by urging Ukraine to send all available military units to its eastern border with Russia and recommending U.S. and allied support through defensive weapons and air surveillance, to send a message to Moscow.

“That is the type of response that Russia expects,” he said in a response to questions from Rubio, Tillerson’s toughest GOP inquisitor. “If Russia acts with force,” Tillerson said, “they require a proportional show of force.”