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China plays down tough talk by Trump choice for top diplomat

BEIJING (AP) -- China on Thursday stressed mutual respect and cooperation with the U.S. in response to tough talk from Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, who said the administration would block Chinese access to its fortified man-made islands in the South China Sea.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said tensions in the strategically vital waterway had lessened and countries from outside the region should support efforts toward stability.

China-U.S. relations are based on "non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation," Lu said at a daily briefing.

"If you take a look at (Chinese) President Xi Jinping's call with Donald Trump after he won the election, you can see that the two countries do respect each other, and we agree with him that we should develop our relations based on mutual respect," he said.

In the South China Sea, which China claims virtually entirely, the "situation has cooled down, and we hope non-regional countries can respect this consensus that is in the fundamental interest of the whole world," Lu added.

In testimony at his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Rex Tillerson presented a sharply more confrontational tone that diverged from the Obama administration's focus on cooperation with China.

"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," he said when asked if he supported a more aggressive U.S. posture.

The former Exxon Mobil CEO also accused Beijing of "declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China's," comparing its island-building efforts and deployment of military assets on the islands to Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea -- an action that ended up prompting tough U.S. and European sanctions.

He called China's actions "extremely worrisome." The U.S. failure to respond "has allowed them to keep pushing the envelope" in seas that carry $5 trillion of trade annually, he said, suggesting Trump would adopt a tougher approach.

"This is a threat to the entire global economy if China is allowed to somehow dictate the terms of passage through these waters," Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Chinese diplomats say they aren't overly worried by fiery rhetoric from Trump and his Cabinet picks and that China's won't change its basic constructive approach to U.S.-China relations.

However, they say they won't negotiate over what China considers its "core interests," particularly the self-governing island of Taiwan which it claims. Trump spoke by telephone with Taiwan's president after his election last year in a remarkable break with U.S. diplomatic precedent.

Tillerson's comments on the South China Sea were savaged by some foreign experts on the region and Chinese military analysts, who said Beijing would likely respond to any such moves with its own harsh retaliatory measures.

Tillerson's testimony on blocking access to the South China Sea islands was "reckless/inaccurate," tweeted Michael Swaine, an expert on China-related security topics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. "Hmm never heard of 'act of war?'" he added.