US planes, ships to continue West PH Sea patrols
SINGAPORE: The United States on Saturday vowed to keep sending military aircraft and ships to disputed parts of the South China Sea including areas in the West Philippine Sea and called for an immediate halt to reclamation works by Beijing in the tense region.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told a high-level security conference in Singapore that Beijing’s intensifying reclamation activity was “out of step” with international norms.
“First, we want a peaceful resolution of all disputes. To that end, there should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants,” Carter said at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue on security with a high-level Chinese military delegation attending.
“We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features,” he said.
He acknowledged that other claimants have developed outposts of differing scope and degree, including Vietnam with 48, the Philippines with eight, Malaysia with five and Taiwan with one.
“Yet, one country has gone much farther and much faster than any other.
And that’s China. China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres, more than all other claimants combined and more than in the entire history of the region. And China did so in only the last 18 months,” Carter said.
“It is unclear how much farther China will go. That is why this stretch of water has become the source of tension in the region and front-page news around the world.”
‘Reasonable and justified’
In comments during a question and answer session after Carter’s speech, a Chinese military official said his criticism was “groundless and not constructive.”
“Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not at all an issue because the freedom has never been affected,” said Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo from China’s Academy of Military Science.
“I think China’s activities are legitimate, reasonable and justified,” Zhao added.
Chinese delegation head Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the general staff department at the People’s Liberation Army, is scheduled to address the forum on Sunday.
Last week the Chinese military ordered a US Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft to leave an area above the heavily disputed Spratly Islands. But the American plane ignored the demand.
“There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as US forces do all around the world,” Carter said in Singapore.
“America, alongside its allies and partners in the regional architecture, will not be deterred from exercising these rights — the rights of all nations. After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.”
Beijing has accused Washington of singling out China over an activity that other countries in the region are also engaged in.
China insists it has sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, a major global shipping route believed to be home to oil and gas reserves.
Code of conduct
In his speech, Carter urged China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to adopt a “code of conduct” in the disputed waters this year.
The code is expected to build on a non-binding 2002 pledge by countries with competing claims to respect freedom of navigation, resolve disputes peacefully and refrain from inflaming the situation.
ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts of the sea, along with Taiwan.
Washington on Friday accused China of deploying two artillery pieces on one of its artificial islands in the South China Sea, calling it an unprecedented move that suggests Beijing is trying to extend its military reach in the contested waters.
The heavy weapons, since removed, posed no security threat but their positioning — within range of territory claimed by Vietnam — underscored Washington’s concerns that China is pursuing a massive island-building project for military purposes, US officials said.
Carter said Washington “will support the right of claimants to pursue international legal arbitration and other peaceful means to resolve these disputes.”
The Philippines infuriated China when it filed a formal complaint to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in March 2014. China has so far refused to recognize the process.
Taiwan as peacemaker
Washington might encourage Taiwan to play a larger role in the growing South China Sea dispute, a report in the Taipei Times that quoted a US official said.
US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke on Tuesday offered support for Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s peace initiative.
Washington policymakers are expected to discuss the issue with Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen when she visits the US capital next week, the Taipei Times said.
“We appreciate Taiwan’s call on claimants to exercise restraint, to refrain from unilateral actions that could escalate tensions and to respect international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention,” Rathke said.
Asked about Ma’s plan to emphasize that resources can be shared even though sovereignty cannot be divided, Rathke stressed that the US position on the South China Sea was long-standing and had not changed.
“With regard to claims of sovereignty over land features in the South China Sea, our position is that maritime claims must accord with the Law of the Sea, and we have a strong interest in peace and security, and in the manner in which claimants address their disputes,” Rathke said.
“As to the question of sovereignty over islands claimed by Taiwan or other land features claimed by claimants, we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of land features,” he said.
Rathke said that China’s extensive land reclamation efforts in the region had contributed to rising tensions and that under international law land reclamation could not change the maritime zones of a geographic feature.
Washington sources have told the Taipei Times that the administration of US President Barack Obama would be interested to learn Tsai’s plans for the South China Sea and said she would face questions on the subject. They also suggested that Taiwan should expand its role as a peacemaker in the region.
The Brookings Institution has published a lengthy paper urging Taiwan’s inclusion in negotiations related to the South China Sea.
Lynn Kuok, a foreign policy academic at Brookings, released a paper entitled, “Taiwan’s Evolving Position in the South China Sea” where she said that all parties who have an interest in better management of the dispute and a more peaceful region — including China — should support Taiwan’s inclusion in negotiations and activities relating to the South China Sea.
“This can be done in ways consistent with China’s ‘one China’ principle,” Kuok said.
She added: “Proper management of the dispute necessarily involves Taiwan — Taiwan controls the largest land feature in the South China Sea, its vessels regularly patrol the area and it has one of the biggest fishing industries in the Pacific.”
Kuok said that, for China, supporting Taiwan’s participation in cooperative activities would show Beijing’s desire for better cross-strait relations and its dual-track approach to the dispute; seeking one-on-one negotiations on sovereignty issues and multilateral arrangements within the region to promote peace and stability.
She said Taiwan should clarify its claims, avoid unleashing nationalist sentiment, which would limit policy options, and continue promoting Ma’s peace plan.
In addition, Taiwan should push from behind the scenes for participation in code of conduct negotiations and in cooperative activities involving all claimants, she said.