[Over the past several years, China has dredged sand to turn scattered South China Sea reefs and atolls into islands — totaling roughly 3,000 acres — despite protests from neighbors and from the United States. An international tribunal invalidated many of China’s claims in the sea last year, but Chinese leaders have pressed forward with construction.]
By Javier C. Hernández
BEIJING — The Chinese state news media lashed out at Rex W. Tillerson, President-elect Donald J. Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, on Friday, warning that his call to deny China access to islands it has constructed in the South China Sea could provoke a conflict.
Mr. Tillerson said during a confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China’s efforts to build islands in the sea and to equip some with military equipment were illegal, and he drew comparisons to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
State-run news outlets in China angrily denounced Mr. Tillerson’s remarks on Friday, vowing to counter any effort by the United States to intervene in the strategically significant waterway, which Beijing argues has been its territory since ancient times.
Global Times, a newspaper that often adopts a nationalistic tone, warned in an editorial that the United States might be forced to wage a “large-scale war” if it tried to block China from the islands.
“China has enough determination and strength to make sure that his rabble-rousing will not succeed,” the editorial said, referring to Mr. Tillerson.
China Daily, a state-run, English-language newspaper, said in an editorial that the nominee’s remarks were “not worth taking seriously because they are a mishmash of naïveté, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices and unrealistic political fantasies.”
“Should he act on them in the real world, it would be disastrous,” the editorial continued. “It would set a course for devastating confrontation between China and the U.S.”
The angry reaction to Mr. Tillerson’s remarks reflected the degree to which Chinese leaders see the island-building campaign as a matter of national sovereignty and a crucial part of efforts to become a global military superpower.
But the response also suggested that Chinese officials seek to stake out a tough position as they prepare to deal with Mr. Trump, who has criticized Chinese policies on trade and North Korea.
“China is looking to heighten the threat of conflict,” said Anders Corr, principal of Corr Analytics, a research organization based in New York. “They’re basically doing that to try to intimidate U.S. political and economic actors, and influence their decision making around issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea.”
Mr. Corr added that Mr. Trump and his cabinet nominees, through their harsh words, also sought a strong hand in negotiations.
Still, many analysts in China reacted with alarm to the remarks by Mr. Tillerson, who recently stepped down as chief executive of Exxon Mobil. He said that the United States would need to “send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops.” He added, referring to China, “Your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
Over the past several years, China has dredged sand to turn scattered South China Sea reefs and atolls into islands — totaling roughly 3,000 acres — despite protests from neighbors and from the United States. An international tribunal invalidated many of China’s claims in the sea last year, but Chinese leaders have pressed forward with construction.
The Obama administration has dispatched warships near the artificial islands, in what it calls an attempt to uphold freedom of navigation in the sea, an important economic and strategic waterway that is believed to be rich in oil and gas. But American officials have so far stopped short of threatening to block China’s access to the islands.
Carlyle A. Thayer, an emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said that such a move would be akin to President John F. Kennedy’s ordering a blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“Tillerson’s proposal would provoke a serious confrontation that could quickly develop into armed conflict,” he said.
Some Chinese analysts said Mr. Tillerson’s remarks were an indication that the United States would continue to seek a robust presence in Asia, despite Mr. Trump’s pledges to focus on domestic issues.
Su Hao, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, said that such a move by Washington would draw resistance from China and other nations in the region.
“China will not adjust its policy regarding the South China Sea,” Mr. Su said in a telephone interview. “We will continue to do things that are in line with our own national interests and our own logic.”
Follow Javier C. Hernández on Twitter @HernandezJavier.
Owen Guo contributed research.