J-15 fighters from China's Liaoning aircraft carrier conduct a drill in an area of South China Sea, January 2, 2017.  Reuters/Mo Xiaoliang
J-15 fighters from China's Liaoning aircraft carrier conduct a drill in an area of South China Sea, January 2, 2017. Reuters/Mo Xiaoliang

If the US blocks China’s access to islands in the South China Sea then “the two sides had better prepare for a military clash,” a China state-run newspaper said in an editorial on Friday, in reference to comments by U.S. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson on Wednesday.

During his confirmation hearing before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson said that China’s occupation and militarization of the islands was akin to “Russia taking Crimea from Ukraine.”

Tillerson added that Beijing’s island building in the area was “illegal” and that China’s access to the islands “is not going to be allowed.” He didn’t give further details.

China’s English-language Global Times called the comments “astonishing” and a threat of war. He was taking to the bully pulpit because he is the most controversial candidate among President-elect Donald Trump‘s nominees and wants to win favor among Senators by attacking China, the paper said.

The newspaper was also conciliatory in noting that Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp, said Chinese and American economic interests are deeply intertwined, but made clear that any attempt to blockade the islands would lead to “a large-scale war in the South China Sea.”

The Global Times, which is published by the ruling Communist Party’s newspaper, is well known for its nationalist editorials.

“Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories,” the paper said.

China has laid claim to most of the South China Sea, which initial surveys show may have massive deposits of oil and natural gas, and is home to sea lanes through which about $5 trillion in trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have made claims to islands and reefs in the region.

The US has previously asked China to respect the findings of an arbitration court in The Hague last year that rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea in favor of the Philippines.

Separately, Tillerson in the hearings came out in support of Japan in a dispute with China in the East China Sea over ownership of islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Daioyu in Chinese.

An air defense identification zone over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands that Beijing established in 2013 was “illegal,” Tillerson said. In response to a question as to what the US would do if China attempted to use force to take over the Japan-administered islands, Tillerson said the US is committed to the defense of Japan.

The Global Times made no comment on this island dispute.

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