recap tillerson confirmation hrg origwx cs_00003123.jpg
recap tillerson confirmation hrg origwx cs_00003123.jpg
Now playing
02:53
RECAP: Rex Tillerson confirmation hearing
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
02:03
Trade war could hit farmers twice
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 9:  Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a welcoming ceremony November 9, 2017 in Beijing, China. Trump is on a 10-day trip to Asia.  (Photo by Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Pool/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 9: Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a welcoming ceremony November 9, 2017 in Beijing, China. Trump is on a 10-day trip to Asia. (Photo by Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images)
Now playing
05:18
How will tariffs affect US, China trading?
ROCKTON, IL - OCTOBER 9:  John Shedd, 85, loads a container with Bt-corn harvested from his son
PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
ROCKTON, IL - OCTOBER 9: John Shedd, 85, loads a container with Bt-corn harvested from his son's farm October 9, 2003 near Rockton, Illinois. Shedd and his son farm 800 acres of the corn on farms in Illinois and Wisconsin. Bt-corn is a GMO (genetically modified organism) crop that offers growers an alternative to spraying an insecticide for control of European and southwestern corn borer. The Shedds sell the corn for use in ethanol. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:54
China is hitting the US where it hurts: Soybeans
A reach stacker transports a shipping container in a terminal at the Yangshan Deep Water Port in Shanghai, China, on Friday, March 23, 2018. The trade conflict between China and the U.S. escalated, with Beijing announcing its first retaliation against metals levies hours after President Donald Trump outlined fresh tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese imports and pledged there
PHOTO: Bloomberg/Getty Images
A reach stacker transports a shipping container in a terminal at the Yangshan Deep Water Port in Shanghai, China, on Friday, March 23, 2018. The trade conflict between China and the U.S. escalated, with Beijing announcing its first retaliation against metals levies hours after President Donald Trump outlined fresh tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese imports and pledged there's more on the way. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Now playing
01:53
Trump threatens tariffs on more Chinese goods
trump rose garden
PHOTO: CNN
trump rose garden
Now playing
01:57
Trump on Xi Jinping: He's for China, I'm for us
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30:  (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a joint press conference with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the Rose Garden at the White House April 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. The two leaders also met in the Oval Office to discuss a range of bilateral issues earlier in the day.  (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
PHOTO: he Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a joint press conference with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the Rose Garden at the White House April 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. The two leaders also met in the Oval Office to discuss a range of bilateral issues earlier in the day. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Now playing
01:53
WaPo: Trump caves on China demands
TOPSHOT - A vendor picks up a 100 yuan note above a newspaper featuring a photo of US president-elect Donald Trump, at a news stand in Beijing on November 10, 2016.
The world
PHOTO: GREG BAKER/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOT - A vendor picks up a 100 yuan note above a newspaper featuring a photo of US president-elect Donald Trump, at a news stand in Beijing on November 10, 2016. The world's second-largest economy is US president-elect Donald Trump's designated bogeyman, threatening it on the campaign trail with tariffs for stealing American jobs, but analysts say US protectionism could create opportunities for Beijing. / AFP / GREG BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:48
US trade with China, explained
China
PHOTO: FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
China's President Xi Jinping (L) and US President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:16
Trump to help Chinese phonemaker after ban
President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Monday, April 9, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
PHOTO: Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Monday, April 9, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Now playing
02:14
Trump: China taking advantage of US for years
PHOTO: pool
Now playing
01:11
Trump threatens China with new tariff plan
PHOTO: POOL
Now playing
01:13
Trump on trade: Nothing is easy
US President Donald Trump (L) and China
PHOTO: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
US President Donald Trump (L) and China's President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. Donald Trump urged Chinese leader Xi Jinping to work "hard" and act fast to help resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, during their meeting in Beijing on November 9, warning that "time is quickly running out". / AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURI (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:15
China responds to Trump's security speech
Now playing
00:57
Watch Trump's stunning U-turns on key issues
trump one china policy river cnn lok_00000000.jpg
trump one china policy river cnn lok_00000000.jpg
Now playing
02:32
China warns Trump with nuclear bomber flyover
TAIPEI, TAIWAN - JANUARY 14:  Honor guards raise the Taiwan flag in the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall square ahead of the Taiwanese presidential election on January 14, 2016 in Taipei, Taiwan. Voters in Taiwan are set to elect Tsai Ing-wen, the chairwoman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, to become the island
PHOTO: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
TAIPEI, TAIWAN - JANUARY 14: Honor guards raise the Taiwan flag in the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall square ahead of the Taiwanese presidential election on January 14, 2016 in Taipei, Taiwan. Voters in Taiwan are set to elect Tsai Ing-wen, the chairwoman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, to become the island's first female leader. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:52
Taiwan lawmaker on Trump's 'One China' remarks

Story highlights

Tillerson says China should be denied access to islands

He says China's claims like "Russia's taking of Crimea"

(CNN) —  

President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state has set the stage for a potential showdown with China over the South China Sea, saying that China should be denied access to the artificial islands it has built in the disputed waters.

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, told his confirmation hearing Wednesday that China’s activity in the waters, which see $5 trillion in shipborne trade a year, was “extremely worrisome.”

The comments during his day-long testimony before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee look set to inflame tensions with China, which claims much of the South China Sea as an integral part of its territory.

He also compared China’s territorial claims to Russia’s military intervention and the annexing of Crimea in 2014. “Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. Its taking of territory that others lay claim to,” Tillerson 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 not going to be allowed.”

Tillerson added that the Obama administration had neglected to tackle the problem, saying the “failure of a response has allowed them to just keep pushing the envelope on this.”

Analysts said Tillerson’s testimony, combined with his future boss’s earlier pronouncements, signaled that a Trump administration is poised to take a much tougher stance on China.

Since winning the election Trump has lashed out at China on Twitter, made clear he’s serious about wringing a new trade deal from Beijing and upended US policy toward Taiwan – an issue of deep sensitivity for China.

“All the quotes taken together do signal that, like Trump and some of his advisers, are poised to take much firmer stance on China in the South China Sea and across the board,” said Ashley Townshend, a research fellow, at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

But Townshend doubted whether Tillerson would really follow through on some of the specifics of his testimony.

“The US cannot block China’s access to the islands without causing a confrontation, probably a military confrontation, and it would be illegal for the US to block access to the vast majority of those islands and reefs,” he said.

In response to Tillerson’s remarks, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang appeared to say Thursday that the US should stay out of the dispute.

He said China and other claimants had returned to a “dual track” approach to try and “resolve the issue peacefully,” saying that the situation in the South China Sea had “cooled down.”

“We hope countries outside the region will respect this consensus that is in the interest of the region and the world.”

Military option?

Under Obama, the US has repeatedly called for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and sailed and flown its assets near the islands China controls – drawing repeated warnings from China.

China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres of land in the Spratly Islands since 2014, turning reefs and sandbars into islands equipped with airfields, ports and weapons.

Yvonne Chiu, an assistant professor of politics at Hong Kong University, said that militarily the US would be able to kick China off the islands but doubted this was something the Trump administration really had the stomach for.

“I think the ultimate goal is to make sure the islands aren’t used to threaten other countries in the region,” she said.

North Korea

Tillerson, who said that he’d only spoken to the President-elect about world affairs in general terms, did appear to depart from the views of his future boss on North Korea, which Townshend said would be the biggest challenge for the new president.

Trump has said that China isn’t doing enough to rein North Korea and its autocratic leader Kim Jong Un but Tillerson said it was necessary to be “clear-eyed” about China’s role.

“I think a lot of our troubles today are that we do not enforce – we make commitments, we say we are going to do something and then we don’t enforce it,” Tillerson said.

“And that is again a mixed message that I think has been sent in the case of North Korea and our expectations of China. I think we have to be clear-eyed as to how far China will ago, and not get overly optimistic as to how far they’ll go,” Tillerson said.

On Taiwan, Tillerson didn’t diverge from current US policy, saying he’d reaffirm the Taiwan Relations Act, which has guided ties between the two since 1979.