NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar : China on Saturday vowed “clear and firm reactions” to defend its interests in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) but rejected suggestions of aggression, as Beijing faces international pressure over maritime disputes with its neighbors.
A series of incidents between Beijing and rival claimants to the waters has sent regional tensions soaring and spurred Washington to call for an end to all “provocative” acts.
“The position of China to safeguard its own sovereignty, maritime rights and interests is firm and unshakeable,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said following a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw.
Wang said the situation in the contested waters was currently “stable,” adding that Beijing always acted with “self restraint.”
“However, for those groundless provocative activities, the Chinese side is bound to make clear and firm reactions,” he said.
China also defended the building of lighthouses in Paracel and Spratly islands, calling them its “inherent territory” amid tensions with Vietnam and other nations that also claim parts of the region.
“China has long been building and maintaining lighthouses and other navigational aids on islands” in the Xisha and Nansha chains, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.
“What China has done is beyond any reproach since it provides necessary measures to safeguard the navigational safety of vessels passing by and serves the public good in conformity with the requirement of relevant international rules,” Hua said.
She reiterated China’s position that the Paracels and the Spratlys, which Beijing calls Xisha and Nansha islands, “are inherent territory of China.”
Sites for five new lighthouses to be constructed in the Paracels have been chosen, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported Friday, citing China’s Navigation Guarantee Center of the South China Sea.
The report said lighthouse construction experts were dispatched to carry out research at the five sites.
Hua was responding to a written question seeking China’s comment on remarks made by a US State Department spokeswoman on Thursday.
At a briefing in Washington, the State Department’s Marie Harf said the US position has been “for a very long time that we believe territorial disputes should be managed and resolved peacefully, diplomatically, and in accordance with international law.”
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea, including waters, islands, reefs, shoals and rocky outcrops nearer to other countries.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrived in the early hours of Saturday to attend a series of meetings with regional and international powers, is expected to underline Washington’s message for a freeze on any activities that could worsen regional maritime relations.
Animosity over the South China Sea, a crucial maritime route that is also believed to hold huge oil and gas deposits, is dominating Asean talks, which began Friday and are broadening to include key world powers ahead of security discussions on Sunday.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea including waters, islands, reefs, shoals and rocky outcrops nearer to other countries.
Asean states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also claim parts of the sea, while Taiwan is a sixth claimant.
Ties between China and Vietnam sunk to their lowest point in decades in May after Beijing moved a deep-sea oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands, triggering deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam.
Beijing has since removed the rig, in a move that analysts say was aimed at deflecting accusations of aggressive maritime behavior.
A draft statement from Asean foreign ministers, who met Friday, said the 10-member bloc had “serious concern” over recent developments in the disputed sea.
It also called for an end to “destabilizing actions.” That wording is likely to have proved contentious for China’s supporters in Asean and no final statement had been released by early Saturday.
The Philippines has been at the forefront of protest against China and has challenged Beijing’s claims before a UN tribunal.
It has also protested Chinese reclamation works in disputed reefs, including a suspected airstrip.
In March, China tried to block a resupplying mission by Manila to a shoal in the Spratlys, after also seizing another South China Sea shoal from the Philippines in 2012.
Manila wants a speedy conclusion of talks for a legally binding code of conduct, and the establishment of a dispute settlement mechanism anchored in international law.
Foreign Secretary del Rosario said he had received support for his proposals but said they would be referred to senior officials for further consideration.
The maritime row is set to loom large over discussions at the Asean Regional Forum on Sunday.
The forum is an annual security dialogue among foreign ministers of the 10-member Asean and key partners, including Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the European Union.