The war of words with China is well and truly underway, with the Trump administration asserting on Monday that the US will “protect our interests” in the disputed South China Sea, most of which is claimed by Beijing.
Beijing was quick to respond, warning Washington on Tuesday that it would not back down over its claims in the sea.
“The US is going to make sure that we protect our interests there…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,” Sean Spicer, White House press secretary, said.
Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said at a press briefing in Beijing that China had “irrefutable” sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea and that the US was not a party to the dispute.
Spicer’s remarks came in response to a question about comments from secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, who had said during his confirmation hearing: “We’re going 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 had gone on to say that China was “taking territory or control, or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China’s” and that the failure of adequate US response has “allowed them just to keep pushing the envelope on this”.
China has claimed most parts of the South China Sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have claimed parts of it. Though not a party, the US has sent air and water patrols through the area claiming “freedom of navigation”.
These remarks by Donald Trump officials — the president himself has talked about China building “massive fortresses” on the disputed islands — could lead to escalation of tensions and a military confrontation with a country that is already watching the new administration with some concern.
Trump upended decades old One-China policy of the United States to take a congratulatory call from the Taiwanese president, and defended it saying “everything is on the table, including One China”.