President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state said China must be denied access to artificial islands built in the South China Sea, a move that could lead to conflict between the world's biggest economies.
Former Exxon Mobil Corp chief Rex Tillerson said at a confirmation hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that a failure to respond to China's actions had allowed it to ''keep pushing the envelope'' in the South China Sea.
''We're going to have to send China a clear signal that first the island-building stops and second your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,'' he said in response to a question as to whether he would support a more aggressive posture in the South China Sea and compared China's actions to those of Russia in the Crimea.
The remark was the latest from Trump's administration to signal a more aggressive defence posture against China in addition to calls for a tougher line on trade. Trump had earlier questioned the US's policy of recognising Beijing over the government in Taiwan, and criticised China's ties with North Korea.
''Like the US, China has the right within its own territory to carry out normal activities,'' Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular briefing in Beijing in response to a question on Tillerson's remarks. ''That is within the limits of its sovereignty.''
Tillerson did not elaborate on what he planned to do to deny China access to the islands it had built up from South China Sea reefs, equipped with military-length airstrips and fortified with weapons.
Tillerson added that Washington needed to reaffirm its commitment to Taiwan, which Beijing regarded as a renegade province, but chose not refer to Trump's questioning of Washington's long-standing policy on the issue.
''The way we've got to deal with this is we've got to show back up in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia,'' he said.