Trump Secretary of State Choice to Say Russia Must be Held to Account

Rex Tillerson AP

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, on Wednesday will voice concerns about Russia's actions on the world stage and say China must help pressure North Korea to reform.

The Trump transition team circulated Tillerson's opening statement to be delivered during his Senate confirmation hearing.

He will explain to some extent why Trump has been in favor of a warmer relationship with Moscow, saying Washington needs an open and frank dialogue with Russia on its ambition in order for the United States to chart its own course.

But his rhetoric expressing concern about Russia goes beyond Trump's own frequent expressions of the need for better ties after what he feels was a bungling of the relationship by outgoing President Barack Obama.

"Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia," Tillerson will say. "But it was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent."

He cited Obama's failure to act against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people after saying in 2012 that doing so would cross a "red line" as a weak signal to Moscow.

"We backtracked on commitments we made to allies. We sent weak or mixed signals with 'red lines' that turned into green lights. We did not recognize that Russia does not think like we do," Tillerson will say.

Tillerson, like Trump, will express a dim view of China's aggressive moves in the South China Sea such as its building artificial islands.

"China's island-building in the South China Sea is an illegal taking of disputed areas without regard for international norms," he will say.

As Trump adopts from Obama the challenge of containing North Korea's nuclear program, Tillerson signaled a move to exert more pressure on China to help.

"We cannot continue to accept empty promises like the ones China has made to pressure North Korea to reform, only to shy away from enforcement. Looking the other way when trust is broken only encourages more bad behavior. And it must end," Tillerson will say.

When asked about Tillerson's comments at a daily briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang reiterated that disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved regionally.

With reference to North Korea, Lu said: "We care more about peace and stability on the Korean peninsula than any other country."

Tillerson will say that challenges posed by Islamic State, China, North Korea and Iran represent new global realities that must be addressed with an assertive United States.

"To achieve the stability that is foundational to peace and security in the 21st century, American leadership must not only be renewed, it must be asserted," he will say.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Tillerson, the wealthy former CEO of Exxon-Mobil Corp., plans to use an unusual interpretation of U.S. tax law to spread out taxes owed on his retirement package over the next decade instead of paying more than $70 million immediately.

The Journal said the move could save Tillerson more than $10 million if Trump gets through the U.S. Congress a tax reform plan that cuts individual tax rates.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Sandra Maler and Nick Macfie)