US won’t back down in South China Sea – official
MANILA, Philippines — Despite close encounters at sea, the United States will not stop confronting China over its massive territorial claims in the South China Sea, as it presses to maintain freedom of navigation under international law.
Backing down in the South China Sea is tantamount to rewarding China’s aggressive behavior, said US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Dr. Joseph Felter in a roundtable interview with a small group of selected media on Wednesday.
The senior defense official cited a near-miss between a US Navy destroyer and a Chinese warship in the South China Sea in September. At that time, USS Decatur was conducting freedom of navigation operations near two Chinese-controlled features in the Spratly Islands.
The Chinese missile destroyer Luoyang came within 45 yards of the US warship, forcing the latter to maneuver to avoid a collision.
While Felter described the incident as “unfortunate,” he said that it would not change the US position in the South China Sea.
“If you recall the USS Decatur incident two months ago, that was an isolated incident. We have CUES or code for unplanned encounters at sea, which our friends in China tend to follow. We don’t have any incidents. This was an unfortunate incident. They nearly collided at sea and that would have been very unfortunate, but that does not mean we’re going to change our behavior. If it results in the US backing down in a way, it’s almost rewarding the belligerent behavior. So we will continue to exercise our rights under international law,” he said.
China insists it owns almost all of the South China Sea, including waters close to the shores of the other claimants in the strategic waterway, despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in 2016 that invalidated these claims.
Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the South China Sea.
To reinforce its sweeping claim, China built artificial islands on seven features in the Spratly archipelago and put up military bases equipped with anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles.
The US says it does not take sides in territorial claims in the disputed waters, but has expressed interest in the peaceful settlement of the rival claims.
The senior defense official also expressed concern about a recent statement of a ranking Chinese military official encouraging the Chinese navy to attack US warships conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
In a report from the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times, Dai Xu, the president of the Institute of Marine Safety and Cooperation and a senior colonel at the People’s Liberation Army, was quoted as saying: “If the U.S. warships break into Chinese waters again, I suggest that two warships should be sent: one to stop it, and another one to ram it. In our territorial waters, we won’t allow U.S. warships to create a disturbance.”
Felter said the US would still continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations in international waters.
“We don’t intend to enter Chinese waters. We intend to enter international waters, both in the South China Sea and everywhere in the world. If they want to escalate and threaten a ship that’s sailing in international waters, we would be concerned. We hope that would not be a decision they make,” he said.
“These are international waters. This is an area where President Xi promised in 2015 that they will not militarize. This is an area that an international tribunal court ruled in favor of the Philippines, dismissing their illegal claims. So we’re concerned about China’s activities and we encourage them to abide by international law,” Felter said. /cbb
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