China militarization of sea raises ‘great concern’ in US
China’s militarization of the South China Sea has caused “great concern” in the United States, according to a visiting US official, who on Wednesday urged claimants in the strategic waterway to pursue dialogue instead of activities that “increase tensions and raise the possibility of conflict.”
“Some of the recent reports of militarization would suggest that past commitments are being violated, commitments not to militarize, commitments that have been made publicly and privately to the United States and other parties,” W. Patrick Murphy, acting principal deputy assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs at the US state department, told reporters.
Murphy did not mention any country by name, but was clearly referring to China, which has seized seven reefs within Philippine territory in the South China Sea and transformed them into artificial islands that it is now developing into military bases.
US news network CNBC, citing US intelligence sources, reported on May 2 that China had deployed antiship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of the Philippine-claimed reefs — Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Zamora (Subi) and Panganiban (Mischief), drawing a warning of “consequences” from the United States.
Vietnam, one of the claimants in the Spratly archipelago, requested China to remove the weapons.
But the Philippines said it did not have the technology to verify the report. Malacañang said, however, that it was confident the missiles were “not directed at us.”
The response drew criticism from lawmakers and security experts, but President Rodrigo Duterte insisted there was nothing he could do.
In a speech aboard a Philippine Navy vessel on Tuesday, the President acknowledged that the West Philippine Sea — the waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea — had been “eaten slowly” by China.
But “[w]hen China claimed the entire ocean as theirs, there’s nothing I can do, there’s nothing we can do, because that is what they want,” the President said.
The President blamed the Philippine predicament on the administration of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, which, he said, did nothing to stop China from building artificial islands on Spratly reefs claimed by the country.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters near the shores of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, all of which have claims in the South China Sea.
The Aquino administration challenged China’s claim in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013 and in July 2016, shortly after the President assumed office, the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines.
China has ignored the ruling and the Philippine President has set it aside, preferring aid, loans and investments from Beijing.
China has been landing military planes and docking warships at the reefs, indicating the bases are nearing completion.
“We have long been concerned about developments in the South China Sea that threaten stability, security and the peace among all of the nations that are connected to this part of the world,” Murphy said.
He said the claimants should observe the principles they agreed to in the past to abide by international law, pursue dialogue and cease activities like construction, reclamation and militarization “that increase tensions and raise the possibility of conflict” in the region.
Militarization also undermines the negotiations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which officially started last November, he said.
“The militarization that has been evident for some time threatens to undermine that dialogue because it puts in question the good faith of parties coming to the table,” Murphy said.
He stressed, however, that the United States was not taking sides in the disputes. —With a report from Nestor Corrales
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