World Asia Pacific First Look

Beijing reasserts sovereignty claims over disputed South China Sea islands

On Tuesday, China said it had 'irrefutable' sovereignty over the disputed islands, after the White House vowed to defend 'international territories' in the strategic waterway.

China's Liaoning aircraft carrier, with accompanying fleet, conducts a drill in an area of the South China Sea in this undated photo taken in December 2016.
Stringer/Reuters | Caption

China on Tuesday restated its claims of sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, calling them “irrefutable,” amid comments suggesting the possibility of military action from the Trump administration. 

“The United States is not a party to the South China Sea dispute,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a regular news briefing on Tuesday, according to Reuters. “We urge the United States to respect the facts, speak and act cautiously to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea.”

China claims most of the South China Sea, while Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei all claim parts of the strategic waterway, where fishing grounds, oil, and gas deposits are abundant. 

In addition, China has also built military-length air strips and installed weapons systems on the Spratly Islands. 

The latest dispute started after President Trump’s secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, took a more confrontational position toward China in his Senate confirmation hearing.

“We're going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” the former Exxon Mobil chairman and chief executive said. 

White House spokesman Sean Spicer on Monday defended the access ban, after China's state media said the United States would need to "wage war" to enforce such a ban as proposed by Mr. Tillerson.

“The U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” Mr. Spicer said at a press conference. “It's a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we're going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”

The vow comes six months after an international court at the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, concluding that China had violated maritime law with its aggressive activities in the South China Sea. 

However, China has refused to recognize the arbitration decision, and warned the United States and other countries not directly involved not to meddle in its disputes, which Beijing hopes to resolve through one-on-one negotiations. 

Experts have also said the ruling would be difficult to enforce, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in July: 

Enforcement of the order will be problematic. Neither the Philippines nor neighboring countries have the military muscle to confront China’s warships and aircraft. And while the United States has sent vessels through the area to protect freedom of navigation, it can’t easily serve as an enforcer of the Law of the Sea, having refused to ratify the treaty.

The latest statement signifies a sharp departure from previous US policy, which had been more cautious in handling the contested waters. Some security experts have expressed concerns that threats to bar China’s access could result in a dangerous escalation of hostilities between the two countries.

The US Navy has extensive capabilities to stage a blockade operations, but such a move would have no basis in international law, according to Mira Rapp-Hooper, an expert on South China Sea issues at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. 

"A blockade – which is what would be required to actually bar access – is an act of war," Dr. Rapp-Hooper told Reuters. "The Trump administration has begun to draw red lines in Asia that they will almost certainly not be able to uphold, but they may nonetheless be very destabilizing to the relationship with China, invite crises, and convince the rest of the world that the United States is an unreliable partner."

The latest development comes just after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe completed high-profile visits to South Asian countries including Philippines and Vietnam, during which he pledged new investment opportunities and support in protecting their waters. 

China sees the visits as an attempt to divide the Southeast Asian nations. 

"The Japanese leader spared no effort in driving a wedge and playing up the regional tension, showing his ulterior motives and extremely unhealthy mindset," the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Ms. Hua said. 

The Philippines, for its part, has sought to maintain a more neutral position.

"I just want to assure the Filipino people that when we take action at engaging China in this dispute, we do not want to take such aggressive, provocative action that will not solve the problem," Perfecto Yasay, the secretary of Foreign Affairs, told CNN Philippines. "We cannot engage China in a war."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.