Beijing warns US away from disputed reefs in South China Sea

Anger in Beijing after US destroyer sailed close to Scarborough Shoal last week

A satellite image of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, located about 230km off the Philippines and 650km from the southern Chinese island province of Hainan. The shoal is also claimed by the Philippines and Taiwan.  Photograph:  USGS/Nasa Landsat data/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images

A satellite image of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, located about 230km off the Philippines and 650km from the southern Chinese island province of Hainan. The shoal is also claimed by the Philippines and Taiwan. Photograph: USGS/Nasa Landsat data/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images

 

China has warned the US to steer clear of disputed territory in the South China Sea and vowed “necessary measures” to protect its sovereignty after a guided missile destroyer sailed near a shoal claimed by Beijing.

“China will take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty,” foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said after the USS Hopper came within 12 nautical miles of the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea on Wednesday last week.

China refers to the small ring of reefs as Huangyan Island Scarborough Shoal, located about 230km off the Philippines and 650km from the southern Chinese island province of Hainan. The shoal is also claimed by the Philippines and Taiwan.

Mr Lu accused the US warship of impairing China’s sovereignty and security interests, as well as causing a threat to Chinese vessels and personnel in the area.

“We strongly urge the US to rectify its mistake immediately and cease this kind of provocation so as not to harm Sino-US relations and regional peace and stability,” he said.

US officials described the operation as “routine”. Washington carries out “freedom of navigation” operations that it insists are separate from political considerations.

China has claims on nearly the entire South China Sea, which in recent years has angered neighbours Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.

Countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam have expressed their fears about China’s militarisation of the waterway, including the construction of missile batteries and military runways on man-made islands.

“China respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea for all countries in accordance with international law, but resolutely opposes any country’s move to impair China’s sovereignty and security interests in the name of freedom of navigation and overflight,” Mr Lu said.

‘Cold war’ mindset

The defence ministry followed up with its own statement, urging the US to abandon its “cold war” mindset and take a more rational and objective view of Chinese military and security interests in the maritime region.

The move prompted a raft of critical editorials in Chinese media.

In a commentary, the Communist Party’s official organ, People’s Daily, accused the US of militarising the region even though the situation in the region had been improving.

“Against this backdrop of peace and cooperation, a US ship wantonly provoking trouble is single-minded to the point of recklessness,” the paper said.

“If the relevant party once more makes trouble out of nothing and causes tensions, then it will only cause China to reach this conclusion: in order to earnestly protect peace in the South China Sea, China must strengthen and speed up the building of its abilities there,” it said.

The Global Times, which strikes a particularly nationalist tone, said it expected tensions to flare up between China and the US.

“But if Washington intends to undermine its ties with Beijing, it needs to reckon with the returns and losses and take a high-stakes move to turn its diplomacy with China from a controllable process into a gamble,” it said.