23:48 GMT +319 November 2019
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    Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, photographed by a USN surveillance aircraft in 2015

    Changing of the Guard: US Seems to Lack Unified Position on the South China Sea

    © REUTERS / U.S. Navy/Handout
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    Commenting on the recent remarks of new appointees in the Trump Administration, Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis weighed in on the situation in the South China Sea and further US relations with China. Chinese social scientist Tao Wenzhao explained to Sputnik why the US does not have a unified position on the issue yet.

    This image provided by the U.S. Navy, taken Oct. 17, 2016, shows the guided missile destroyer USS Decatur, right, pulling into position behind the Military Sealift Command USNS Matthew Perry, during a replenishment-at-sea, seen from the bridge of the guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance, in the South China Sea
    © AP Photo / U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Will Gaskill
    The newly appointed US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, 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," the US media quoted the former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil as saying at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

    The new top US diplomat also called China's activity in the waters "extremely worrisome."

    Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has declared that the United States sees no reason to launch any kind of large-scale military move in the South China Sea due to the current level of Chinese activity in the region.

    "At this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all," Mattis said during a press conference held after the meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, during his first overseas trip as a new appointee.

    Commenting on the vast difference in the remarks of the new appointees, Tao Wenzhao, a Researcher from the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Sputnik that usually when there is a change of government in a county, the official position of the state towards a certain issue or dispute is formed only after the full Cabinet is formed.

    However currently the new Trump Administration is still being formed, hence there are  different remarks  regarding the South China Sea, Taiwan or the trade policy.

    Tillerson, he said, is a former businessman and not a diplomat; hence it is quite difficult to say how deeply he understands the problems of the South China Sea. His reaction, however, was quite sharp and the difference with Mattis's remarks becomes only more vivid.

    The social scientist also added that if the Trump Administration continues pursuing the so-called "freedom of navigation" argument in the South China Sea, at times to within 12 miles of the islands, it will only mirror the position of the previous administration and won't bother China that much.

    The issue in question addressed by the two appointees involves the ownership of Spratly Islands – a group of islands and associated maritime features in the South China Sea that may be rich in oil and natural gas deposits. China lays claim to the area within the so called nine-dash line, which overlaps the exclusive economic zone claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

    In 2013-2014 China launched a large-scale dredging program in the region, creating artificial islands in an apparent attempt to develop its military presence there by building airfields and radar installations. This move provoked criticism from other parties involved in the dispute, and from the US, which in 2015 deployed the USS Lassen guided-missile destroyer to patrol the area in what appeared to be a challenge to China’s territorial claims.

    On July 2016, following a unilateral appeal by the Philippines in 2013, an arbitrary tribunal constituted under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled against China’s claims in the region. However, Beijing does not recognize the tribunal or the ruling, which is also not enforceable.

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