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‘We need dialogue with Russia’: Tillerson

US State Secretary-designate to tell Senate hearing the Kremlin ‘does not think like we do’

Rex Tillerson wants “an open and frank dialogue” with Russia about the country’s ambitions as the US Secretary of State-designate claimed the Kremlin has taken advantage of a void in leadership from the White House in recent years.

In a speech published ahead of his appearance before a Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Tillerson also warned about China’s actions in the South China Sea, Iran’s perceived flouting of international accords and the continued threat posed by radical Islamist groups.

Watch a replay of Tillerson's confirmation hearing below.

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It was the former ExxonMobil chief executive’s comments on Russia, however, which were expected to draw most attention, as observers have pointed to his and his long-term employer’s interests in the country and how the US supermajor would stand to profit were economic sanctions against the Moscow government be lifted, which could happen under his watch.

Tillerson told the Senate hearing later on Wednesday that the US “needs to be clear-eyed” about its relationship with Russia.

“Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests,” his speech read.

“But it was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent. 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 recognise that Russia does not think like we do.”

Tillerson has a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and in particular Rosneft boss Igor Sechin through decades of business dealings, at one time being in charge of ExxonMobil’s operations in Russia.

The Texan said that Russia’s “recent activities” – referencing the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea – had “disregarded American interests”, as the once superpower sought “respect and relevance on the global stage”.

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On China, Tillerson said the US’ interactions with it “have been both friendly and adversarial”, but he pointed to an escalation of Chinese activity in the South China Sea, which has threatened to destabilise the region.

“China’s island-building in the South China Sea is an illegal taking of disputed areas without regard for international norms,” he claimed.

“China’s economic and trade practices have not always followed its commitments to global agreements. It steals our intellectual property, and is aggressive and expansionist in the digital realm. It has not been a reliable partner in using its full influence to curb North Korea.”

He accused the Beijing administration of showing “a willingness to act with abandon in pursuit of its own goals, which at times has put it in conflict with America’s interests”, adding: “We have to deal with what we see, not with what we hope.”

US President-elect Donald Trump has previously disparaged agreements lifting sanctions on Iran, allowing the Middle East hydrocarbons powerhouse to significantly raise oil and gas production as it came back into the international fold. Tillerson appears to be willing to toe the Trump line in this regard.

“We cannot afford to ignore violations of international accords, as we have done with Iran,” he warned.

Tillerson said he would, if passed fit by the Senate, be taking the reins of US foreign policy “at a pivotal time in both the history of our nation and our world”.

“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.

“Quite simply, we are the only global superpower with the means and the moral compass capable of shaping the world for good,” he said.