Reuters reports that the exchange occurred before President Donald Trump left for Vietnam on Friday, but did not specify whether the president was involved in the conversation, or who among the U.S. delegation was, other than himself.
“We had a frank exchange here in China on maritime security issues and the South China Sea. The U.S. position remains unchanged,” Tillerson reportedly said, adding that America insists that when “upholding freedom of navigation, that claimants be consistent with international law and that claimants should stop construction and militarization of outposts in order to maximize prospects for successful diplomacy.”
China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, including territory belonging to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and waters off of Natuna Island, Indonesia. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague found no evidence for China’s territorial claims and ruled them invalid in a 2016 verdict, which Beijing vowed to ignore. China has since continued construction of military and civilian facilities in Philippine and Vietnamese territory, particularly the Spratly and Paracel Islands.