The White House on Monday said the US would protect its interests in international waters in the South China Sea but refused to say whether it would attempt to block China from accessing artificial islands in the disputed area.
Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive nominated by Donald Trump for secretary of state, angered China this month by declaring that the US would attempt to prevent China from accessing islands where it has been building runways and other facilities that have potential military use.
In his first press conference, Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, said the US would prevent China from taking over any islands located in international waters in the region.
“The US is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” he said when asked by the Financial Times if Mr Trump agreed with Mr Tillerson. “If those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then, yes, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”
The US has historically avoided taking a stance on the sovereignty of the reefs and other maritime features in the South China Sea that are contested by China and its neighbours. However, the Obama administration voiced strong objections to the construction of runways and other facilities by China on several disputed features.
Beijing on Tuesday urged the US, which it said was not a party to the regional dispute, to act and speak cautiously on the South China Sea.
“China has indisputable sovereignty,” foreign ministry spokesman Hua Shunying said at a daily press briefing. “We remain committed to peaceful negotiations with the countries concerned.”
While Mr Spicer declined to say whether the Trump administration would attempt to block China from accessing the disputed islands — as Mr Tillerson has advocated — his response surprised Asia experts given the sensitivity of the South China Sea issue.
“Drawing a red line around Chinese access to the artificial islands it claims in the South China Sea is risky business,” said Evan Medeiros, a former top Asia adviser to Mr Obama who is now at Eurasia Group. “How do you enforce it? This approach risks armed conflict and the US would lose much of Asia in the process.”
Dennis Wilder, a former top China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency now at Georgetown University, said Mr Spicer seemed to be referring to “freedom of navigation”, but that his remarks would confuse China rather than clarify whether the White House planned to proceed with the approach laid out by Mr Tillerson.
“The Chinese will want a better explanation of the policy on the South China Sea,” said Mr Wilder, who was the top White House Asia adviser to George W Bush. “It shows that Tillerson and the new [White House] press secretary are just not yet steeped in the arcane nature and legal niceties of the South China Sea issue.”
The comments came shortly before the Senate foreign relations committee voted to approve Mr Tillerson for secretary of state, paving the way for the full Senate to vote on his nomination. But in a move that underscored concerns about Mr Tillerson, all 10 Democrats on the 21-member committee opposed his nomination — a rare outcome since senators have historically backed nominees for the top US diplomatic job.
However, Mr Tillerson was essentially guaranteed confirmation after Marco Rubio, the Republican senator who had raised red flags about his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, decided to back the Texan oil man, saying that despite reservations he wanted to ensure that Mr Trump was able to quickly install his team.
While Mr Tillerson was grilled about Russia at his confirmation hearing, he also attracted scrutiny over his China remarks. He argued that the US should send China a signal that its “access to those islands also is not going to be allowed”. While some experts speculated that he had misspoken, one person familiar with his private conversations with senators before the hearing said he had floated the same line.
The South China Sea is just one aspect of US-China policy that has come into focus since Mr Trump won the election. In December, the FT reported that he had spoken to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, in a move that broke four decades of the US adhering to the so-called “One China” policy. Mr Trump has suggested that he might not adhere to the diplomatic formula, which has helped ensure peace between China and Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province.
China was also angered to learn that Mr Trump had appointed Peter Navarro, a China hawk, to run a new White House National Trade Council.
The Senate on Monday evening also voted to confirm Mike Pompeo as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The move means that three of Mr Trump’s top appointees have been confirmed. Mr Trump and his team have urged the Senate to move more quickly to approve his other nominees, arguing that the Senate confirmed seven of Barack Obama’s nominees on his first day in office in 2009.
Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Beijing
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi