• Rex Tillerson at the U.S. Senate.

Rex Tillerson at the U.S. Senate. (Photo : Getty Images)

Chinese pundits strongly believe the United States won't block China's access to its man-made islands in the South China Sea and argued these remarks by U.S. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson sprang from the man's lack of diplomatic experience.

But if the U.S. under Donald Trump finds the balls to do so, China will accelerate the militarization of its man-made islands (which it said were only for non-military use when it built them), and establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the disputed South China Sea.

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One of these pundits, Yuan Zheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of American Studies, said the U.S. wouldn't dare push through with Tillerson's suggestion.

"I don't think the U.S. will stop China from accessing its own islands in the South China Sea," he said, conveniently forgetting the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague on July 12, 2016 ruled China has no legal basis to claim ownership of the South China Sea and the islands in it, man-made or natural.

"China is not Cuba, and the South China Sea is not the Caribbean. The South China Sea is not under the U.S. sphere-of-influence. It's China's territorial waters."

He also said Tillerson's words partially reflected his "weaknesses in diplomacy and lack of public service."

Another pundit, Oh Ei Sun, an international affairs specialist at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, said the U.S. can't deny China access to the South China Sea.

Tillerson made the remarks assailed by the pundits during his confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Jan. 11. His statements are the first time a U.S. administration has indicated its readiness to use military force to stop China's relentless "sea grab" in the South China Sea.

China is currently speeding-up the militarization of the islands it's reclaimed. It's poised to deploy over the next few months modern surface-to-air missile systems on the most strategically important of these islands.

China has reclaimed over 3,000 acres of land in the Spratly Islands since 2014. It's transformed reefs and sandbars into man-made islands equipped with military airfields, radar stations and anti-aircraft sites.

On July 12, 2016, the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague declared illegal China's claim to own most of the South China Sea based on its alleged "historic rights." China has refused to accept the court's judgment and stands in violation of it to this day.

"We're going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed," he said.

The statement implies the use of military force to enforce it.

Tillerson also saw China's activity in the South China Sea as "extremely worrisome."

He compared China's territorial claims over the South China Sea to Russia's military annexation of the Crimea, which belong to Ukraine, in March 2014.

"Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia's taking of Crimea. It's taking of territory that others lay claim to," Tillerson pointed out.

China's first response to Tillerson's tougher rhetoric was surprisingly muted. It again repeated the well-worn line the U.S. should stay out of the dispute in the South China Sea and leave it all to China.