China Says Its South Sea Claims Are ‘Indisputable’

China declared its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea and held naval drills in the waters, pushing back against a U.S. role in resolving disputes in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

“China has indisputable sovereignty of the South Sea and China has sufficient historical and legal backing” to underpin its claims, Geng Yansheng, a Ministry of Defense spokesman, told reporters at a military compound outside Beijing today. It opposes efforts to “internationalize” the issue and will resolve differences through “friendly negotiation,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week called the sovereignty issue “a leading diplomatic priority.” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi subsequently called her comments “virtually an attack on China” and said U.S. involvement “can only make matters worse and more difficult to solve.”

The Chinese government considers the entire South China Sea as its own, dismissing claims from Southeast Asian countries to islands such as the Spratlys, and is building an ocean-going fleet to project power beyond its borders. China told Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP Plc to halt exploration in areas that Vietnam considers part of its territory, according to U.S. government agencies.

China’s military recently held a large-scale naval exercise in the sea using “real weaponry,” Geng said. The exercise, involving warships from three naval fleets, included missile launches at long-range targets and practicing against jet fighters, the state-run China Daily reported today.

North Korea

The exercises coincided with joint U.S.-South Korea naval drills earlier this week in the Sea of Japan designed to deter North Korea. Further drills are planned in the Yellow Sea, off China’s eastern coast, and South Korea plans to hold an anti- submarine drill there next week, Yonhap reported today, citing army spokesman Lee Bung-woo.

“China opposes any planes or warships that engage in activities that will compromise China’s security either in the Yellow Sea or other seas near China,” Geng said today.

China’s warning to Clinton to keep out of territorial disputes in the sea may be pushing its neighbors into U.S. arms. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan also claim islands in the South China Sea that may have oil and gas reserves.

“The danger always was that if China became more aggressive in the South China Sea, this would push regional countries closer to the United States,” said Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore. “That’s exactly what’s happening.”

China’s Military

China has beefed up its military over the past decade, enhancing the capability to deter U.S. ships and enforce territorial claims. Last year, Chinese fishing boats harassed two U.S. naval vessels in the South China Sea, where American forces have patrolled since World War II.

The South China Sea covers 3.5 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles) stretching from Singapore to the Straits of Taiwan. Its waters carry about half the world’s merchant fleet by tonnage each year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Estimates of oil and gas reserves in the waters vary, with some Chinese studies suggesting they contain more oil than Iran and more natural gas than Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. agency.

In addition to Clinton, 11 other participants at last week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum in Hanoi on regional security raised the issue of sovereignty over the sea.

China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, was “a bit emotional” when discussing the sea, South Korean counterpart Yu Myung Hwan said in a July 24 interview. “Suddenly the atmosphere became sullen.”

Code of Conduct

China has resisted committing to a code of conduct in the sea to build on a 2002 accord that called for disputes to be resolved peacefully.

“Yang said at length that the issue should be discussed bilaterally,” Japan’s Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told reporters on July 27 after attending the forum in Hanoi.

Clinton offered to help facilitate discussions on a code of conduct, saying it was essential to ensure unimpeded commerce, and signaling a direct U.S. role in a dispute it had previously avoided.

“The United States is attempting to coerce Southeast Asian nations into blowing out of proportion the South China Sea issue,” the state-run China Daily said in a July 27 editorial. “This is a dangerous move. It will jeopardize the status quo in the region, one that is built upon peaceful coexistence.”

China’s behavior over the sea has caused “a lot of consternation in the region,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow who studies China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The best term would be intimidation. One could also say coercion.”

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