Strongly refuting Chinese allegations, the US has said that its freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not an act of provocation, two days after an American navy ship sailed close to a disputed reef in the area.
The US, on the other hand, reaffirmed the concerns of the international community, particularly of the countries in the region, against Chinese movements and actions in the resource- rich sea. However, the White House yesterday refused to describe the situation in the South China Sea as headed towards tension.
“I would not describe it that way. I think that there are concerns about China’s activities in the South China Sea, (which) are well documented. Our concerns that we have raised both publicly and privately with Chinese officials at a range of levels,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at his daily news conference yesterday.
The freedom of navigation operation that was carried out by the US forces earlier this week is relatively routine, the presidential spokesman said.
“We have done that at least a couple of times just in the last four or five months. It is not intended to be a provocative act. It is merely a demonstration of a principle that the president laid out on a number of occasions, which is that the US will fly, operate and sail anywhere that international law allows,” Earnest said, adding that this operation was undertaken in consistent with that principal.
A US navy ship sailed close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea on Tuesday. The guided missile destroyer, USS William P Lawrence, passed within 22-kilometres of Fiery Cross Reef, the limit of what international law regards as an island’s territorial sea. The reef is now an island with an airstrip, harbour and burgeoning above-ground infrastructure.
Chinese authorities monitored and issued warnings to the US destroyer when it passed.
The concerns and the tensions that exist around the South China Sea do not actually directly involve the US. The United States is not a claimant to any of the land features in the South China Sea, Earnest said.
“Our concern lies principally with the need for those parties that do have competing claims to resolve them through diplomacy. And we certainly do not want to see the tensions increase, because of the risk that that could pose to the extensive commerce that’s conducted in that region of the world,” Earnest said, adding that this also underscores the complexity of the US relationship with Australia.
“Australia is one of our closest allies and we work with them on a range of issues. I will let the Australians describe the concerns that they may have or the impact on their national security that the tensions in the South China Sea may have. But obviously, the Australian economy is affected by the glut of capacity in the steel industry in much the same way that the US is as well.
“I know that the (Australian) Prime Minister (Malcolm) Turnbull has indicated his own priority for ensuring that international trade is conducted fairly. That common ground is the basis for kinds of conversations that President (Barack) Obama and he have on a fairly regular basis,” he said.
Despite all these, Earnest said the US has been able to work with China in pursuit of other priorities.
“We have talked about North Korea, and the influence that the Chinese government has with North Korea,” Earnest said.
The US also worked with China to complete the Iran deal. That would not have been possible without China’s active participation in the discussions but also China had to be helpful in terms of imposing and enforcing the sanctions that compelled Iran to the negotiating table in the first place, he observed.
“So, this illustrates that there are differences of opinions that we have with China, and I am certainly not seeking to downplay them. They are significant and they have significant consequences for our economy in particular. But they have not prevented the US and China from being able to work effectively together to pursue other areas where we’re in better agreement,” Earnest added.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan fiercely contest China’s claims. They also have overlapping claims over the area stated to be endowed with oil, minerals and rich with fisheries.