China has warned the US that its “dangerous and provocative acts” in the South China Sea could lead to “a minor incident that sparks war”.
China’s naval commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, issued the warning to his American counterpart Admiral John Richardson during video conference talks on Thursday aimed at defusing tension in the region, according to a Chinese naval statement.
“If the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be a seriously pressing situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that sparks war,” the statement paraphrased Wu as saying.
“I hope the US side cherishes the good situation between the Chinese and US navies that has not come easily and avoids these kinds of incidents from happening again,” Wu said.
The high-level talks followed mounting international alarm in the wake of the decision by Washington to send a US destroyer close to artificial islands built by Beijing in the South China Sea.
According to the Pentagon, however, the hour-long talks had been “productive”.
The admirals discussed “freedom of navigation operations, the relationship between the two navies including pending port visits, senior leader engagement and the importance of maintaining an ongoing dialogue”, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Navy spokesman Lieutenant Tim Hawkins said the conversation on Thursday had been “professional and productive”.
The USS Lassen guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the land formations claimed by China in the disputed Spratly Islands chain on Tuesday.
The move prompted the Chinese government to summon the US ambassador in Beijing and denounce what it called a threat to its sovereignty.
The US said after Thursday’s talks that the Chinese had expressed no desire to cancel scheduled visits by Chinese ships to a Florida port next week and that an upcoming visit to China by the commander of the US Pacific Command would still take place.
“We look forward to continue this dialogue,” an official said.
Wu and Richardson, the US navy operations chief, had agreed to speak again via video conference later this year.
Tensions have mounted since China transformed reefs in the area – also claimed by several neighbouring countries – into small islands capable of supporting military facilities, a move the US says threatens freedom of navigation.
Washington has repeatedly said it does not recognise Chinese claims to territorial waters around the artificial islands and reiterated that it would send more warships to sail close to the controversial islets.
But in a move that is likely to trigger fury in Beijing and reignite tension in the region, an international tribunal ruled on Thursday that it had the power to hear a case brought by the Philippines over the disputed seas.
Manila has insisted the UN convention on the law of the sea, which the Philippines and China have both ratified, should be used to resolve the bitter territorial row over isolated reefs and islets.
China has refused to participate in the proceedings, arguing the Permanent Court of Arbitration – which is more than a century old and based in The Hague – had no jurisdiction over the case.
“Reviewing the claims submitted by the Philippines, the tribunal has rejected the argument” by China that the “dispute is actually about sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and therefore beyond the tribunal’s jurisdiction”, the court said in a statement.
Instead, the court ruled the case reflects “disputes between the two states concerning the interpretation or application of the convention” – something which falls within its remit.
A senior Chinese diplomat said on Friday that China would neither participate in nor accept the case. Vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin added that the case would not affect China’s sovereign claims in the seas.
China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which about a third of all the world’s traded oil passes.
Following a stand-off between Chinese ships and the weak Filipino navy in 2012, China took control of a rich fishing ground called Scarborough Shoal that is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
China has also undertaken giant reclamation activities, raising fears it will use artificial islands to build new military outposts close to the Philippines and other claimants.
The tribunal – set up in 1899 to resolve international disputes between countries – stressed on Thursday its ruling did not yet go to the heart of the merits of Manila’s case, which was first filed in 2013.
A new hearing will now be held behind closed doors in The Hague, and a final ruling is not expected until next year.
The tribunal agreed it would take up seven of the 15 submissions made by Manila, in particular whether Scarborough Shoal and low-tide areas like Mischief Reef can be considered islands, as China contends.
It will also consider whether China has interfered with Philippine fishing activities at Scarborough Shoal.
But it set aside seven more pointed claims, mainly accusing Beijing of acting unlawfully, to be considered at the next hearing on the actual merits of Manila’s case.
In a July hearing in the Hague, Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario warned the integrity of UN maritime laws was at stake.
China’s behaviour had become increasingly “aggressive” and negotiations had proved futile, del Rosario said.
But the court on Thursday also directed Manila to narrow down the scope of its final request that it should order that “China shall desist from further unlawful claims and activities.”
In Washington, a senior US defense official hailed the tribunal’s decision as victory for international law.
“We of course welcome the decision of the panel. This demonstrates the relevance of international law to the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea,” the defense official said.
By THE GUARDIAN, October 30, 2015 in the Guradian