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Rex Tillerson got strangely carried away at his confirmation hearing. He's on the verge of becoming the U.S. secretary of state, but at one point he seemed to be channelling the bellicosity of his soon-to-be-boss, president-elect Donald J. Trump.

The former CEO of Exxon Mobil was right to criticize the Chinese government for threatening the freedom of the seas, and bulldozing its neighbours' territorial claims, by building artificial islands in disputed parts of the South China Sea.

But Mr. Tillerson didn't just criticize Beijing. He went far beyond that. He said that the United States should respond by surrounding the artificial islands, preventing the Chinese Navy and Air Force from being able to access military installations on land that China claims as part of its territory. As he put it, China's "access to those islands is not going to be allowed."

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It would amount to a blockade – an act of war. That would literally start the Trump administration with a bang.

Mr. Tillerson also said the building of the islands was "akin to Russia's taking of Crimea" in 2014. We appreciate a Team Trump member criticizing Moscow, but other than that, Mr. Tillerson's aim is slightly off.

In Crimea, Moscow seized a large, internationally recognized piece of another sovereign country's territory, populated by more than two million people. It invaded a neighbouring country and altered its borders; an unprecedented action in postwar Europe.

China's behaviour in the South China Sea is wrong, but it's a more complicated dispute over who owns what. In Crimea, there's nothing in dispute.

Beijing's government and military have been pushing around the neighbours and pushing the envelope of legality, and then some. But in pushing back, Washington should not be eager to engage in the kind of brinkmanship that risks turning into a war. The costs and risks are high, and the benefits are very low.

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Until now, Mr. Tillerson looked like one of the more sophisticated nominees in president-elect Trump's emerging cabinet. He may have simply misspoken during a long confirmation hearing; he may not be accurately expressing the views or plans of the incoming administration. But his words are not an auspicious sign.

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