The US should "prepare for a military clash", a state run Chinese tabloid newspaper has warned.
Less than 24 hours after US Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson appeared to call for a blockade of South China Sea islands, a strongly-worded English editorial in the Global Times accused the former ExxonMobil chief executive of "rabble-rousing".
He "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, which is known for writing hawkish editorials, said. However, despite being state run, it does not necessarily reflect government policy.
In its first response to Mr Tillerson’s comments, China’s foreign ministry stressed the importance of mutual respect and cooperation with the US.
At a daily briefing spokesman Lu Kang Lu said relations between the two countries were based on “non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation."
The energy-rich South China Sea through which about $5 trillion (£4 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year has nonetheless been a source of tension in the region.
Despite competing claims from other countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam, China has built seven artificial islands on reefs and rocks, outfitting them with military length airstrips and anti-aircraft guns.
During his time in office, President Barack Obama's administration has conducted periodic air and naval patrols to assert the right of free navigation in the South China Sea.
These have angered Beijing and a Chinese warship recently seized a US Navy underwater drone before returning it a few days later.
Seeking to blockade China's man-made islands would be a major step that Washington has never raised as an option
The Global Times editorial said: "The US has no absolute power to dominate the South China Sea. Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories.
"If Trump's diplomatic team shapes future Sino-US ties as it is doing now, the two sides had better prepare for a military clash.
"China has enough determination and strength to make sure that his rabble rousing will not succeed. Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish.
"It is hoped that Tillerson will desire a productive partnership with China more and his harsh words are just coaxing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee."
At his confirmation hearing, Mr Tillerson had accused Beijing of "declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China's," comparing its island-building efforts and deployment of military assets to Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea—an action that ended up prompting tough US and European sanctions.
He said: "You'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."
The Global Times article followed an opinion piece in the state-run China Daily's US edition that strongly criticised Mr Tillerson, accusing him of "undisguised animosity toward China."
It added: "As many have observed, it would set a course for devastating confrontation between China and the US. After all, how can the U.S. deny China access to its own territories without inviting the latter's legitimate, defensive responses?"
However, some analysts believed Tillerson misspoke.
Blocking Chinese access to the islands "could spark armed conflict," said Mark Fitzpatrick, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "I can't help but think that he did not mean it this way."
He added: “The muted Chinese reaction gives him the benefit of the doubt."
However, Mr Trump's nominee for Defence Secretary, told his confirmation hearing China's militarisation of the South China Sea posed a threat to global order
Asked about Mr Tillerson's comments, retired General James Mattis said the US needed an integrated government approach to avoid an incomplete or incoherent strategy.
But he emphasised the importance of freedom of commerce and nurturing US alliances in the region.
"The bottom line is that international waters are international waters, and we have got to figure out how do we deal with holding on to the kind of rules that we have made over many years that led to the prosperity for many nations, not just for ours," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Additional reporting by agencies.
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