The new U.S. administration of President Donald Trump vowed on Monday that the United States would prevent China from taking over territory in international waters in the South China Sea, something Chinese state media has warned would require Washington to "wage war."
The comments at a briefing from White House spokesman Sean Spicer signaled a sharp departure from years of cautious U.S. handling of China's assertive pursuit of territory claims in Asia, just days after Trump took office on Friday.
"The U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there," Spicer said when asked if Trump agreed with comments by his Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, on Jan. 11 that China should not be allowed access to islands it has built in the contested South China Sea.
"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.
Tillerson's remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing prompted Chinese state media to say the United States would need to "wage war" to bar China's access to the islands where it has built military-length air strips and installed weapons systems.
Tillerson, who was expected to be confirmed as secretary of State on Monday, was asked at the hearing whether he supported a more aggressive posture toward China and said: "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."