KUALA LUMPUR – The United States will oppose China’s continued militarisation of the South China Sea to ensure freedom of navigation and flights over the area, a top US official said.
Brian Hook, senior policy advisor to the US Secretary of State, told Malay Mail via telephonic conference the US would not accept the construction of military outposts on artificial islands, built through land reclamation in the area, and widely seen as an attempt by Beijing to cement its territorial claims.
“We very strongly believe that China’s rise cannot come at the expense of the values and rules based order, which is the foundation of peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region and the world at large.
“When China’s behaviour is out of step with these values, we will stand up and defend the rule of law. China’s provocative militarisation of the South China Sea is one area where China is contesting international law,” he said.
“They are pushing around smaller states in ways that puts strain on the global system and their actions undermine core principles of sovereignty which are very dear to us.”
The area is claimed by several Asean states, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei with Taiwan also claiming northern parts of the sea.
China’s claims, called the “Nine-Dash Line” in reference to a Beijing-issued map showing its intended area of control, overlaps with all other claimants and includes nearly the whole area.
Hook said issues regarding the South China Sea were always discussed “at the very top levels” and was a key concern to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who had chaired multiple meetings on the potential flashpoint.
“We are very clear on what our interests are and we back that up through freedom of navigations operations and we let them (China) know that we will operate wherever international law allows.
“We have also been very clear with China that we do not accept unilateral actions by claimants aimed at changing the status quo while issues of sovereignty remain unresolved,” he said.
Hook also said the US would continue its policy of conducting “freedom of navigation exercises” near artificial islands constructed by China, which has labelled such moves “provocative”.
“We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits. We obviously have a long standing interest in the area and China has a different view than we do on.
“The actions we take, as the leading proponent of a rules based system, are to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight …these are all the things that we will enforce,” he said.
The US has sailed its warships very close to the artificial islands on several occasions, with the guided missile destroyer USS Stethem coming within 12 miles (19 km) of Triton Island in the Paracel Island chain last year.
Previously, USS Curtis Wilbur also passed within 12 miles of the island, with the Pentagon stating it notified none of the three claimants to the island beforehand, as the reason for the transit was to protect freedom of navigation, “consistent with international law”.
China has responded furiously to such actions on the diplomatic front with the Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman Senior Colonel Wu Qian being quoted as saying:
“We strongly urge the United States to immediately mend its ways and end illegal provocations in the name of so-called freedom of navigation.”
The area is considered a vital economic route with an estimated 80 per cent of global trade transiting the area south of Taiwan to the Melaka Straits and is believed to hold vast reserves of natural resources.
It is also a vital military choke point for maritime powers as it commands the quickest passage between the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean and Far East.
– Malay Mail