China claims to honor freedom of navigation after Aquino concern

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Vietnamese military building on an islet of the Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago in the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea. Neighboring countries have reaffirmed that China's 9-dash line territorial claim over the entire South China Sea is against international laws.

China said it commits to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea after Philippine President Benigno Aquino called for it to clarify a report that Chinese police would start interdicting ships in waters Beijing has wrongfully claimed its own.

"China attaches importance to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and at the moment there's no problem in this regard," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing Saturday. Any issues should be resolved through "friendly" consultations, he said.

China's official Xinhua news agency reported on Nov. 27 that authorities in Hainan Island province empowered police to seize and expel foreign ships that illegally enter its waters. The local government has Chinese jurisdiction over islands claimed by Vietnam in that country's East Sea, and by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

The report adds to territorial tensions in the waters after neighboring countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, refused to stamp a Chinese passport that includes a map with its claims in the South China Sea. A similar dispute between China and Japan over islands further to the north damaged trade ties between Asia's biggest economies.

"China has repeated publicly that it will not impede freedom of navigation," Aquino told reporters today in the southern province of Cebu. "Now, on the surface, this seems to contradict their public statements."

Hong declined to directly respond to Aquino's remarks.

Chinese and Philippine vessels squared off earlier this year over the Scarborough Shoal, a land feature in the South China Sea claimed by both countries. The Philippines may accelerate plans to bring the dispute to an international tribunal, Aquino said.

US interest

The US, an ally of the Philippines and Japan, has repeatedly called for China to respect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which stretches from near Singapore to the Straits of Taiwan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday backed efforts by Southeast Asian countries to push for a code of conduct with China in the waters.

"You can't, in the 21st century, permit anyone's claims to territory that creates instability, tensions, and potentially conflict to be unanswered if you're going to try to maintain peace and security," Clinton said at a forum in Washington, referring to China. A push to secure energy resources is driving the increase in tensions, she said.

The South China Sea is estimated to have as much as 30 billion metric tons of oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of gas, which would account for about one-third of China's oil and gas resources, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency. It also contains fishing resources.

Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Saturday called for the disputes to be resolved peacefully and warned about the consequences of confrontations at sea.

"It's very difficult to control everything down to the precise meter or 10 meters when you're operating ships at sea, and when you have several thousand tons of steel coming together, things can happen," he said. "When blood is spilled, then it's very difficult, even more difficult for countries to adopt a position where tensions are lowered."

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