Taiwan sends warship; US, Australia urge Beijing to heed ruling
BEIJING: China warned its rivals on Wednesday against turning the South China Sea into a “cradle of war” and threatened an air defense zone there, after its claims to the strategically vital waters were declared invalid.
The surprisingly strong and sweeping ruling by a UN-backed tribunal in The Hague provided powerful diplomatic ammunition to the Philippines, which filed the challenge, and other claimants in their decades-long disputes with China over the resource-rich waters.
China reacted furiously to Tuesday’s decision, insisting on its historical rights over the sea while launching a volley of thinly veiled warnings to the United States and other critical nations.
“Do not turn the South China Sea into a cradle of war,” vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters in Beijing, as he described the ruling as waste paper.
“China’s aim is to turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation,” he said.
Taiwan, which was another loser in the verdict as its claims are very similar to those of China, sent a warship to Itu Alba or Taiping Island, the largest feature in the resource-rich Spratly Islands, also on Wednesday to protect its claims.
Taiwan said it will “not accept any decisions that undermine the right of the ROC [Republic of China]” and that it will continue to assert its sovereignty over the territory.
“The award … is completely unacceptable to the government of the Republic of China. The tribunal’s decisions have no legally binding force on the ROC,” Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
China faced immediate pressure from other powers, which insist they have legitimate interests in the dispute because of the need to maintain “freedom of navigation” in waters that host more than $5 trillion in shipping trade annually.
The United States noted that China, as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that governs maritime conduct, should accept the verdict.
“As provided in the convention, the tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding on both China and the Philippines,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington.
Kirby called on all sides “to avoid provocative statements or actions.”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop warned China there would be “strong reputational costs” for ignoring the ruling, as she called for an end to Chinese island building.
“China seeks to be a regional and global leader and requires friendly relations with its neighbors. That’s crucial to its rise,” Bishop told national broadcaster ABC.
Liu said China had “the right” to establish an air defense identification zone over the sea, which would give the Chinese military authority over foreign aircraft.
A similar zone set up in 2013 in the East China Sea riled Japan, the United States and its allies.
“Whether we need to set up one in the South China Sea depends on the level of threat we receive,” he said.
“We hope other countries will not take the chance to blackmail China,” Liu added.
The Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, was even more blunt over the ramifications of the verdict.
“It will certainly intensify conflicts and even confrontation,” Cui said in Washington on Tuesday.
China justifies its sovereignty claims by saying it was the first to have discovered, named and exploited the sea, and outlines its claims for most of the waterway using a vague map made up of nine dashes that emerged in the 1940s.
Those claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Taiwan.
Manila, under previous President Benigno Aquino 3rd, launched the legal case in 2013 after China took control of Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and far away from the nearest major Chinese landmass.
China also in recent years built giant artificial islands capable of hosting military installations and airstrips in the Spratlys archipelago, one of the biggest groups of islands in the sea.
The international tribunal upheld most of the Philippines’ 15 arguments or “submissions,” save for those that constituted military activities where it said it had no legal jurisdiction.
Aside from stating that China’s historical rights were without “legal basis,” the tribunal ruled that its artificial island building and the blocking of Filipino fishermen at Scarborough Shoal were unlawful.
The Philippines, however, under new President Rodrigo Duterte, declined to celebrate the verdict, saying on Tuesday only that it welcomed the ruling while calling for sobriety and restraint.
Duterte has repeatedly said he wants to improve relations with China, which plummeted under Aquino because of the dispute, and that he would seek Chinese investment for major infrastructure projects such as a railway for southern Philippines.
Military tensions in the sea had already spiked in the lead-up to the verdict.
China launched naval drills in the northern areas, while the US Pacific Command said it had deployed an aircraft carrier for flights to support “security” in the sea.
It used deadly force to seize control of the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam in 1974, and Johnson Reef from a united Vietnam in 1988.
AFP WITH MICHAEL JOE T. DELIZO