A China Coast Guard ship in a stand off with a Philippine supply boat. Photo: Jay Directo/AFP via Getty Images
The US is very concerned about China's attempted restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight amid the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a senior official said Tuesday, urging claimants to push for peaceful and diplomatic solutions.
There has been an unprecedented campaign of land reclamation and military construction in the region, but "what China is doing vastly outstrips what all other claimants have done," Colin Willett, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said from Washington during a telephonic press conference.
"While it’s true that other claimants have at times put military personnel and weapons on their outposts, it just simply doesn’t compare to what we’ve seen China do in the last two years," she said.
Willett also rejected China’s claims that its new outposts are civilian or for civilian purposes, arguing that its runways, for instance, are designed to accommodate strategic bombers, not cargo planes for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The South China Sea, at the center of an international route that sees around US$5 trillion in trade passing through each year, has been a hotbed of controversy and political tensions.
Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have claims on the waters, believed to have rich fisheries and potentially huge oil and gas reserves. It is known in Vietnam as the East Sea.
The Philippines has lodged an official case against China to an arbitration court in The Hague. A ruling is expected before May, but China has refused to recognize it saying territorial disputes should be resolved bilaterally.
Willett said this important case means that "the next several months are going to be an interesting period to watch."
"The case itself doesn’t actually involve questions of who has sovereignty over the land features in the South China Sea, but it will make some important decisions about the maritime space, the rights of claimants with respect to the Sea and its resources," she said, adding the ruling is legally binding and should be respected.
If China ignores the decision and disregards its international obligation, it will set itself up for further confrontation with neighboring countries, Willett said.
In the meantime, she said, her country will continue to fly, operate and sail through the region in accordance with international law.
"And we, the United States, have made clear that while we hope to see diplomacy win out and for China and the other claimants to engage in a meaningful diplomatic process, we are not about to compromise our principles and that includes on the rights and freedoms that belong to us and the rest of the international community," she said.