WASHINGTON, D.C.: A US aircraft carrier strike group is patrolling in the South China Sea, the US Navy said Saturday (Sunday in Manila), days after Beijing told Washington not to challenge its sovereignty in the waterway.
China asserts ownership of almost all of the resource-rich waters despite rival claims from several Southeast Asian countries. It has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group was engaging in “routine operations in the South China Sea,” the navy said in a statement on its website.
It noted that the ships and aircraft had recently conducted exercises off Hawaii and Guam to “maintain and improve their readiness and develop cohesion as a strike group.”
“We are looking forward to demonstrating those capabilities while building upon existing strong relationships with our allies, partners and friends in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” strike group commander Rear Admiral James Kilby said in the statement.
China’s foreign ministry said ships and aircraft were allowed to operate in the area according to international law.
But Beijing “firmly opposes any country’s attempt to undermine China’s sovereignty and security in the name of the freedom of navigation and overflight,” spokesman Geng Shuang told journalists Wednesday, responding to reports that the Vinson was headed to the South China Sea.
“We also urge the US to refrain from challenging China’s sovereignty and security and to respect regional countries’ efforts to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said.
The Vinson has deployed to the South China Sea 16 times in its 35-year history, the US Navy said.
Washington says it does not take sides in the territorial disputes but has several times sent warships and planes to assert freedom of navigation in the Sea, sparking protests from Beijing.
Code of conduct eyed
As this developed, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) began fast-tracking the framework of a code of conduct (COC) to address mounting tensions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) in a meeting in Boracay, Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said.
“I think officials of both sides are working very hard to be able to meet this deadline…I think all Asean member-states would like to see the early conclusion of the negotiation of actual code of conduct which I think will be useful for managing the region and in regulating the future behavior of the parties concerned in the South China Sea region,” Jose said in a news briefing in Boracay.
The target date of the completion of the COC framework is 2017.
“The Philippines being this year’s Asian host, would prefer not to escalate the tension because while they were talking to Asean for a possible COC, they are actually doing something else on the ground,” Jose said referring to escalating rhetoric between China and US which has been fanning tensions among members of the Asean.
“The COC is a legally binding document, hopefully, since they are coming up with the framework and will be trying to put flesh on the framework so long as we go along towards the final negotiated COC,” he added.
“I think China is sincere in maintaining peace and stability and for managing tensions in the area.”
Asean member-states and China signed the Declaration of Conduct (DOC), the mother document of the proposed COC, in November 2002 in Cambodia after years of negotiations.
The DOC embodies the collective commitment of Asean to promote confidence-building measures, engage in practical maritime cooperation, and set the stage for the discussion and conclusion of a formal and binding COC.
Jose stressed that the DOC has, by and large, “helped maintain the overall stability in the South China Sea.”
AFP AND PNA