China on war footing
BEIJING—China has begun military drills in the South China Sea, state media reported on Saturday ahead of a ruling by an international arbitration court on a dispute with the Philippines over the strategic waters.
The Navy on Friday carried out “combat exercises” with “live missiles” between the Paracels and the southern Chinese island of Hainan, the PLA Daily, the military’s official newspaper, said on its website.
State television CCTV broadcast images of fighter aircraft and ships firing missiles, helicopters taking off and submarines surfacing.
“The drill focused on air control operations, sea battles and antisubmarine warfare,” said the PLA Daily, whose article was reposted on the defense ministry website.
The military maneuvers come as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is set to make its final decision on Tuesday in the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.
The PLA Daily, however, insisted they were “routine exercises” and unrelated to the court’s ruling.
China asserts sovereignty over almost all of the strategically vital waters in the face of rival claims from its Southeast Asian neighbors, most notably the Philippines and Vietnam.
Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway crisscrossed by sea-lanes where $5 trillion in seaborne global trade passes every year and where islets, reefs and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast energy reserves.
To bolster its claims, China has rapidly turned reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
Violation of sea law
Manila lodged its suit against Beijing in 2013, challenging China’s claims to much of the strategic waterway and saying it was in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), to which both countries are signatories.
Beijing has boycotted the proceedings, saying the court has no jurisdiction over the issue and that it will ignore the ruling.
The United States, a longtime treaty ally of the Philippines, on Thursday urged respect for the arbitral court’s ruling, which most legal experts and analysts expect to go against China.
“We urge both parties to comply with the ruling and urge all claimants to avoid provocative actions or statements,” Abraham Denmark, the senior Pentagon official responsible for East Asia, told a congressional hearing about the decision.
Although the United States is not directly part of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it has urged they be resolved through diplomacy, not Chinese force.
Washington, however, has boosted its military presence in the region, dealing with neighboring countries’ concerns about China’s actions in the South China Sea.
The United States has also strengthened its defense alliances with the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries in the region.
US naval patrols
The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is currently patrolling the South China Sea.
Three US destroyers—the Stethem, Spruance and Momsen—also have been patrolling near Chinese-held reefs in the hotly contested Spratly archipelago and Panatag Shoal (international name: Scarborough Shoal), a resource-rich reef that China seized from the Philippines in 2012 after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard.
It was the loss of Panatag Shoal, located in the West Philippine Sea, South China Sea waters within the Philippines’ 360-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) recognized under Unclos, that forced Manila to bring the law of the sea suit in January 2013.
The Philippines asked the UN-backed court to void China’s claims to almost all of the South China Sea and demanded respect for its right to explore resources within its EEZ.
Manila’s move angered China, which insists it has “undisputed sovereignty” over nearly 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea.
‘Price to pay’
The dispute and US backing for the Philippine move and challenge to China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea through naval patrols and surveillance flights have raised tensions in the region, with Chinese state media warning in recent days that there will be a “price to pay” if the United States crossed China’s “bottom line” by meddling in the disputes.
“If the United States, regardless of the cost, chooses the path of ‘brinkmanship’ that pressures and intimidates others, there will be only one result, that is, that the US bears all responsibility for possibly further heightening tensions in the South China Sea,” the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily wrote in an editorial on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the state-run newspaper Global Times published an editorial saying China should prepare for military confrontation over the South China
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei, however, played down the comments, saying on Wednesday that China was committed to peace.
Hong said China would work with Southeast Asian countries “to safeguard the peace and stability of the South China Sea.
But following reports of US naval patrols near the artificial islands China has built in the South China Sea and as expectations of the arbitral court’s ruling built up, Global Times on Friday wrote that China will not take a “single step back” if the United States and the Philippines “act on impulse and carry out flagrant provocation.”
Faced by international pressure to respect the court’s ruling, China, the paper said, will “fight back.”
China, it said, could turn Panatag Shoal “into a military outpost” and “tow away or sink” the BRP Sierra Madre, an old and rusting hospital ship that Manila grounded on Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in 1999 to mark Philippine territory in the Spratly archipelago, to “resolve the standoff once and for all.”
At the congressional hearing in Washington on Thursday, senior US state department official Colin Willett said the United States would not hesitate to defend its national security interests and honor its commitments to Asia-Pacific allies and partners.
“Scarborough Reef is a disputed feature that we don’t recognize any countries sovereignty over. That said, our treaty commitment to the Philippines is absolutely ironclad,” Willett said, adding that occupying a currently unoccupied land feature or militarizing an occupied feature would be very dangerous and destabilizing.
Denmark said the arbitral court’s ruling would be a chance to determine “whether the Asia-Pacific’s future will be defined by adherence to international laws and norms that have enabled it to prosper, or whether the region’s future will be determined by raw calculations of power.”
China has repeatedly said it does not consider any decision reached by the arbitral court to be legally binding.
“China adheres to the position of settling disputes through negotiation and consultation with states directly concerned,” state news agency Xinhua said in a commentary on Saturday. “This has always been China’s policy, and it will never change.”
The Philippines said on Friday it was willing to share natural resources with Beijing in the contested seas even if it wins next week’s legal challenge.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said President Duterte’s administration hoped to quickly begin direct talks with China following Tuesday’s verdict.
He said the negotiations could cover jointly exploiting natural gas reserves and fishing grounds within the Philippines’ EEZ. Reports from AFP and AP/TVJ
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