China Lashes Out Over U.S. Plan on South China Sea
Pentagon proposal to use aircraft and Navy vessels in region prompts swift response: ‘We are severely concerned’
The USS Fort Worth conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea as the Chinese guided-missile frigate Yancheng sails close behind.PHOTO: U.S. NAVY
EVA DOU And
Beijing condemned on Wednesday a proposed U.S. military plan to send aircraft and Navy ships near disputed South China Sea islands to contest Chinese territorial claims over the area.
“We are severely concerned about relevant remarks made by the American side. We believe the American side needs to make clarification on that,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
The unusually strong comments came after U.S. officials said Defense Secretary Ash Carter had asked his staff to look at options to counter China’s increasingly assertive claims over disputed islets in the South China Sea. Those options, officials said, include flying Navy surveillance aircraft over islands and sending U.S. Navy ships within 12 nautical miles of reefs that have been built up in recent months around the Spratly Islands.
“We always uphold the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” Ms. Hua said. “But the freedom of navigation definitely does not mean the military vessel or aircraft of a foreign country can willfully enter the territorial waters or airspace of another country. The Chinese side firmly upholds national sovereignty and security.”
Ms. Hua said Beijing urged “relevant countries to refrain from taking risky and provocative action.”
The proposed U.S. military maneuvers and China’s swift response have raised the stakes in an already tense regional showdown over who controls the disputed waters. Six governments–China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines—claim the South China Sea waters, islands, reefs and atolls in whole or in part.
The Philippines, the country in the region that has taken the most confrontational stance against China, quickly welcomed news of the U.S. plan.
Other Southeast Asian nations generally held their tongue. Privately, many diplomats and leaders in the region say they worry about the potentially destabilizing impact of a confrontation between Washington and Beijing.
Manila has mounted a legal challenge of China’s claims at the United Nations, much to Beijing’s annoyance, and the country’s foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, said Tuesday in Washington that the Philippines is seeking more help from the U.S. in pegging back China’s land-reclamation efforts in disputed waters.
“The Philippines believes that the U.S., as well as all responsible members of the international community, do have an interest and say in what is happening in the South China Sea,” said Charles Jose, spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, early Wednesday, citing freedom of navigation and unimpeded flow of commerce among other factors.
The Philippines has tried to nudge the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations closer to a firmer stand against China’s continuing land-reclamation projects, but many countries are wary. A recent statement from Asean criticizing land-reclamation programs in the South China Sea, for instance, didn’t specifically name China.
The biggest concern among some is that U.S. efforts to ensure free navigation in the region might be interpreted in China as an effort to contain Beijing’s growing influence, which could escalate tensions further.
Malaysia, which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of Asean, also lays claim to parts of the South China Sea, but officials there said it was too soon to say anything about the U.S.’s new direction.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told The Wall Street Journal that Canberra doesn’t take sides on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, but is in close contact with the U.S. on regional tensions.
“We are concerned that land reclamation activity by China and other claimants could raise tensions in the region,” Ms. Bishop said.
The expansion of South China Sea shoals has put Canberra in an uncomfortable position between Washington, its longstanding security ally, and China, its largest trade partner. Defense Minister Kevin Andrews is expected to discuss regional tensions with his U.S. counterpart, Mr. Carter, in Singapore in a few weeks.
U.S. military commanders have in recent months urged Australia to consider joining multinational patrols in international waters north of Indonesia, while also increasing the frequency of U.S. warship and aircraft visits through Australian bases on the periphery of regional tensions.
Other U.S. allies in the region had little to say.
A South Korea Foreign Ministry statement expressed hope China and Asean would agree on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, saying, “A guarantee of security and rights of free navigation in South China Sea, a major maritime route, is a very important issue for South Korea, which relies heavily on trade.” A ministry official said it is inappropriate for Seoul to comment directly on South China Sea territorial disputes.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga refrained from commenting on the considerations by the U.S., its top ally, saying only that the Japanese government wasn’t aware of the matter.
Japan and the Philippines, which have beefed up security ties in response to China’s maritime assertiveness, on Tuesday conducted a joint naval exercise in the South China Sea. Japan sent two destroyers to participate in the drill, which it said took place in “the waters west of Manila.”
While the two navies have trained jointly before, the latest session featured for the first time an exercise focused on communications strategies to respond to “unplanned encounters at sea.”
Security experts are closely watching whether Japan will start sending surveillance planes and naval vessels to the contentious waters of the South China Sea to aid the U.S.’s efforts to patrol the region.
So far, Mr. Carter has only asked his staff to look into various ways to contest China’s claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea.
China, meanwhile, has consistently said it has uncontested sovereignty over islands and adjacent waters within the so-called nine-dash line by which Beijing delineates its claim to almost all of the South China Sea. It has also said that the reclamation projects are mostly for civilian purposes. Recently, China’s navy chief, Adm. Wu Shengli, told his U.S. counterpart, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, in a conference call reported by China’s Ministry of Defense that facilities it is building could be used in joint search-and rescue operations.
U.S. estimates suggest that China has expanded the land it controls in the Spratlys chain to as much as 2,000 acres, up from 500 acres last year. Satellite images from defense intelligence firm IHS Jane’s also show that China has begun construction of an airstrip on one of the new artificial islands.
Manila’s challenge of China’s claims through a United Nations’ tribunal argues that the nine-dash line China uses has no legal basis. Beijing has said it “will neither accept nor participate” in U.N. arbitration.
—Yuka Hayashi and Rob Taylor contributed to this article.