Behind the scenes, Tillerson tones down rhetoric on South China Sea

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Staff Writer

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears to have toned down his unexpectedly stern words on China’s actions in the disputed South China Sea made during his confirmation hearings, an apparently leaked document has shown.

The document, a series of written responses to questions by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing last month before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was posted to the websites of environmental advocacy groups earlier this month.

The document is authentic, a Foreign Relations Committee spokesman confirmed to The Japan Times on Tuesday.

The new document softened earlier comments by Tillerson in which he appeared to advocate a blockade of Beijing’s man-made islands in the South China Sea.

Analysts said such a move in the contentious waterway would be tantamount to an act of war.

“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,” Tillerson wrote in response to the questions about China’s island-building program. “The United States will uphold freedom of navigation and overflight by continuing to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”

Beijing reacted angrily to Tillerson’s insinuation that Washington might impose a naval blockade, with state-run media warning that the U.S. might have to “wage a large-scale war” to prevent Chinese access to the islands.

The Pentagon said last year that Beijing has added more than 3,200 acres (1,280 hectares) of land to seven features it occupies in the waters, mainly in the disputed Spratly Islands, giving it long-term “civil-military” outposts from which it can project power.

Recent reports have also pointed to the installation of weaponry on the man-made islets despite a September 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to militarize the outposts. The U.S. has conducted so-called freedom of navigation patrols near the islands, as part of a challenge to China’s territorial claims there.

China denies any intent to restrict freedom of navigation but has objected when the U.S. Navy has sailed close to the islands.

In the new document, Tillerson, who was confirmed by the Senate in a 56-43 vote on Feb. 1, also voiced the need for the United States and its allies to be able to prevent Chinese access to the islets in the event of a “contingency.”

“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,” he wrote.

Tillerson also appeared to advocate for a more robust U.S. policy toward the contested waterway — and the increased risk associated with such a move.

“The United States must be willing to accept risk if it is to deter further destabilizing actions and reassure allies and partners that the United States will stand with them in upholding international rules and norms,” he wrote, adding that he would work with “interagency partners to develop a whole-of-government approach to deter further Chinese coercion and land reclamation” and “challenges to freedom of navigation or overflight” in the waters.

Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Tillerson’s original statement was poorly considered and appeared to emerge from an impulse to be tough in front of the committee.

Although the written answers could not completely neutralize Tillerson’s earlier remarks, Glaser called them “cleverly modified, removing the implication that the U.S. would challenge Chinese access to its artificial islands in peacetime.”

The newly emerged statements could also strike a balance, clearing up what some experts had criticized as amuddled approach to the issue under the Obama administration. “I think the Tillerson testimony is a bull’s-eye for what many have long advocated,” said James Kraska, a professor of oceans law and policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.

“First, his point about limiting access during contingencies is simply the need for sea control, an important element of sea power during conflict,” Kraska said. “It is helpful for a U.S. leader to speak so plainly about the shared interests and equities of the regional states and the United States in maintaining the balance of power.”

Kraska also had words of praise for Tillerson’s “whole-of-government” approach, calling this “sorely needed.”

Tillerson’s answers were also seen as reining in Trump’s unprecedented take on U.S.-Taiwan relations.

In December, Trump broke with decades of diplomatic tradition by accepting a phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in what was believed to be the first time an American president or president-elect had publicly spoken with Taiwan’s leader since official diplomatic ties were switched to Beijing in 1979.

China considers Taiwan a “core interest,” and views the self-ruled island as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force, if necessary.

Trump has also raised the prospect of using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in Sino-U.S. relations, saying “everything is under negotiation,” including the so-called “One China” policy.

Asked about potential shifts and possible negotiations on “One China,” Tillerson said he backed the policy, adding that he would “continue these policies and work to ensure that the cross-strait military balance remains favorable to peace and stability.”

“I intend to support the One China policy,” Tillerson wrote. “The people of Taiwan are friends of the United States and should not be treated as a bargaining chip. The U.S. commitment to Taiwan is both a legal commitment and a moral imperative.”