China urged the U.S. to speak and act cautiously on the South China Sea on Tuesday after the new U.S. administration’s first public comment on the issue echoed the hard-line tone struck by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer was asked at a briefing on Monday whether President Donald Trump agreed with Mr. Tillerson’s suggestion that the U.S. should try to prevent China from accessing the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.
Mr. Spicer didn’t repeat Mr. Tillerson’s exact remarks but he told the briefing the U.S. was going to protect its interests in international waters in the area.
“So it’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country,” he said.
China’s state media, and many Chinese and Western experts on defense and maritime security, have warned that any blockade of the islands could trigger a dangerous military confrontation between Beijing and Washington.
China’s island-building in the past three years has raised concern in the U.S. and among its Asian allies and partners that Beijing plans to use the facilities to enforce its claims to almost all the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
At a regular news briefing Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying repeated Beijing’s longstanding position that it has irrefutable sovereignty over the islands and is ready to protect its maritime rights and interests.
“We urge the United States to respect facts and to speak and act with caution to avoid damaging the peace and stability of the South China Sea region,” she said. China’s Defense Ministry didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.