Sunday, August 05, 2012

US-China tensions increase in South China Sea

It was a message made to ease tensions in the South China Sea, but the statement from the US Department of State has angered China who say the Americans are interfering in indisputable territorial claims.

US appeal for calm

The US statement talked of having an "interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea" but insisted it did "not take a position on competing territorial claims over land features and have no territorial ambitions in the South China Sea".

However the US Dept. of State called on all sides to "work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats, and without the use of force".

The US is concerned about the increased confrontational rhetoric and, in particular, China's upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City [三沙市] and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region [CCTV video / BBC]. Sansha City is located on Yongxing [Woody] Island in the Paracels, a region that is hotly contested by several countries.

"We continue to urge all parties to clarify and pursue their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law, including the Law of the Sea Convention," the US statement read. "We believe that claimants should explore every diplomatic or other peaceful avenue for resolution, including the use of arbitration or other international legal mechanisms as needed. We also encourage relevant parties to explore new cooperative arrangements for managing the responsible exploitation of resources in the South China Sea." [Washington Post]

US chargé d'affaires summoned

While the statement could be seen as generally diplomatic, that is not how China saw it. Angry at a foreign nation meddling in what China sees as its own internal affairs, China's Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Kunsheng summoned the US Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Wang to make "serious representations" about the issue [FMPRC statement - Chinese / BBCWSJ / France24].

There then followed the release of a lengthy statement from Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang who said the US statement "showed total disregard of facts, confounded right and wrong, and sent a seriously wrong message".

"It is not conducive to efforts by the parties concerned to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific region at large," Qin insisted. "The Chinese side expresses strong dissatisfaction of and firm opposition to it. China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters."

"Stirring up trouble"

The statement went on to question why the US failed to criticise the actions of other countries involved in the South China Sea territorial disputes. "Why has the United States chosen to turn a blind eye to the acts of some country marking out a large number of oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea and making domestic legislation claiming as its own China's islands, reefs and waters?" Qin said. "Why has the United States chosen on the one hand not to mention the acts of some country using naval vessel to threaten Chinese fishermen and laying groundless sovereignty claims over the islands and reefs that indisputably belong to China, while on the other hand make unfounded accusations against China's reasonable and appropriate reaction to provocations?"

Qin Gang went on to accuse the US of attempting to "stir up trouble" at a time when dialogue and communication was being stepped up in an effort to resolve disputes and calm the situation [Xinhua / Xinhua / CNN / Al Jazeera / Guardian / FT / WSJ].


The South China Sea has become Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint as Beijing's sovereignty claim over the huge area has set it against Vietnam and the Philippines as the three countries race to tap possibly huge oil reserves. Beijing and Washington are already at odds over numerous issues, including the value of China's currency, Tibet and Taiwan and this latest dispute will do nothing to calm an already tense situation between the US and China.

China's establishing of a city on a disputed island is seen as highly provocative to neighbouring countries [Al Jazeera / Daily Mail]. China named two senior military generals to head a garrison on a group of islands also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. They are to be based in the new city of Sansha. The city has a supermarket, a bank and a hospital and a population of only 1,000 inhabitants. But for all intents and purposes, Sansha is a propaganda effort to assert China's claims in the region.

Military build-up

"China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters," General Geng Yansheng told Sky News last week, "It is opposed to military intervention in this region." [Xinhua] However, the opposition to military intervention China refers to is that of other nations, not of its own defence of the islands.

It is a tenuous stand-off. Few nations will willingly antagonise China or engage militaristically. The danger is that a mistake by either side could escalate, drawing in larger nations with an interest in the region, particularly the United States, which have a sworn duty to defend many countries in the region including the much disputed island of Taiwan.

Even before the reaction to Friday's US statement, China has continually warned the US to "be careful" in its actions suggesting that any intervention in China's territorial claims would not only hurt the feelings of Chinese people, but would be aggressively repelled [Daily Mail / Xinhua].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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