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Trump’s secretary of state nominee differs on host of issues

Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO, took a hard line during his confirmation hearing against China’s building in the South China Sea, but took stances contradictory to Donald Trump on a ban on Muslims, Russian meddling in the elections, the Paris Climate Accord and nuclear proliferation.

world Updated: Jan 12, 2017 23:38 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Washington, Hindustan Times
Donald Trump,ExxonMobil,Rex Tillerson
Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson testifies during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(AFP)

US president-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state Rex Tillerson might have set up a confrontation with Beijing even before beginning his term saying China should not be allowed access to the South China Sea Islands.

Tillerson might also have set up a string of confrontations with his future boss. He seemed to disagree with Trump on a large number of issues, including Muslims, as emerged at his confirmation hearing in US Senate on Wednesday.

“We’re going to have 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 said when asked if a more aggressive approach was needed on the country.

He went 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”.

By denying access to the islands, as Tillerson suggested, the US would escalate tensions to previously unknown levels. Washington has so far confined its response to sending air and naval patrols through disputed waters close to the islands.

Trump angered Beijing recently by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, in a major departure from America’s longstanding one-China policy. And Tillerson’s remarks might add to Beijing’s irritation.

Tillerson however didn’t go with Trump, who has defended his call with Tsai, all the way though. Asked about America’s one-China policy, the former ExxonMobil CEO said, “I don’t know of any plans to alter the 'one China' position.”

Tillerson differed with Trump on a whole host of issues, which made Democratic senator Christopher Coon remark, after listing the differences, “All of these to me are quite encouraging. But these suggest some tensions with the president-elect.”

Asked, for instance, about Trump’s proposal, which he has toned down, to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US, the secretary of state-designate said, “I do not support a blanket type rejection of any particular group of people.”

About a registry to keep track of Muslims, proposed by a Trump supporter but not fully endorsed by the president-elect, Tillerson said, “I would need to have a lot more information around how such an approach would even be constructed. And if it were a tool for vetting, then it probably extends to other people as well — other groups that are threats to the US.”

Tillerson also differed with Trump on Russian meddling in the elections. He said it was a “fair assumption” that Russian president Vladimir Putin was behind it. The president elect has only been leery of blaming Russia as unambiguously as others.

Trump brought up the issue once again on Thursday tweeting that the director of national intelligence called him “to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated. Made up, phony facts”.

Tillerson wasn’t asked about this memo. The other issue he differed with Trump on were climate change and the Paris Accord. He said he would like the US to keep a place at the table; Trump started by saying he would tear up the deal, and pull the US out of it.

He also differed with Trump on nuclear weapons. He said the US should work towards non-proliferation, while Trump has said he would be fine with South Korea and Japan going nuclear, and the US getting into a nuclear arms race with Russia.

There were other differences — Iran, Saudi Arabia and NATO.

First Published: Jan 12, 2017 23:38 IST