Tillerson sharply criticized Beijing's actions in the South China Sea this week
His comments coincided with a hugely important Chinese political congress
China has called on the US to “abandon its prejudices” after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed Beijing was subverting the global order and pursuing predatory economic policies.
“China firmly upholds the international order with the United Nations at its core,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Thursday.
“China is dedicated to developing long-term healthy and stable relations with the United States.”
Speaking Wednesday at a forum for US-India ties, Tillerson said Beijing’s “provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for.”
China has reclaimed a large amount of land in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, turning reefs into military bases in defiance of an international court ruling.
Lu said the country would “never give up its legitimate rights and interests.”
Tillerson’s latest comments represent something of a return to form for the top US diplomat, who was a strident critic of China during his confirmation hearings in January.
He called on China to be denied access to islands it was occupying in the South China Sea, and compared Beijing’s actions to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
“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, sparking an angry reaction from Chinese state media.
In a subsequent visit to Beijing however, he took a far softer tone, echoing Chinese language on the need to “expand cooperative areas and achieve win-win results.”
On Wednesday, Tillerson said that while the US wants a constructive relationship with China, “we will not shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order, and where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries and disadvantages the US and our friends.”
Tillerson’s latest remarks came just three weeks before US President Donald Trump makes his first official trip to China.
They also coincided with China’s 19th party congress – a massive gathering of Communist Party members during which President Xi Jinping said China should “take center stage in the world,” adding that “no one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests.”
China's Party Congress
Trump was full of praise for Xi when the pair met in Florida in April, but the relationship between the two leaders has apparently cooled in the wake of the ongoing North Korean crisis, for which Trump has blamed Beijing for failing to take more stringent action against Pyongyang.
Foreign ministry spokesman Lu directly quoted Xi Thursday, saying China “will never pursue development at the expense of other countries’ interests, but China will also never give up its legitimate rights and interests.”
Tillerson praised Delhi’s mode of development in comparison to Beijing, setting out a vision of an “Indo Pacific” order stretching from the US west coast to India that would be underpinned by the US and its allies, a move that could be seen in Beijing as an attempt at containment or as a challenge in a region that China sees as falling under its sphere of influence.
“We are pleased to see the US and India – and indeed all countries of the world – develop normal relations, as long as such relations are conducive to peace, stability and development of the region, as well as the improvement of mutual trust between countries in the region,” Lu said.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette contributed reporting from Washington.