Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson took a hard line on China’s activities in the South China Sea Tuesday at his Senate confirmation hearing. He said China had undertaken “illegal actions” with the construction and militarization of new islands in waters disputed by China’s neighbors, and he called the move “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.” Tillerson criticized the Obama Administration’s approach, which has consisted of US Navy freedom-of-navigation operations and USAF show of force sorties close to the islands. He called these measures “a failure of a response” and said current policy has “allowed [China] just to keep pushing the envelope on this.” Tillerson said the Trump Administration would need to “show back up in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia.” When asked what constituted a “more aggressive posture,” he 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.”
Tillerson’s stance on the region is complicated by his previous experience as CEO of oil company Exxon Mobil. Under his leadership, the company signed an agreement with Vietnam, one of China’s competitors, to drill for oil in the South China Sea, according to the New York Times. The US Energy Information Administration has estimated that the South China Sea contains 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves.