China said U.S. criticism of its attempt to bolster claims to gas- and oil-rich islands in the South China Sea sent “a seriously wrong signal” to nations embroiled in territorial disputes in the region.
China’s recent actions “run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions,” a State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, said in an Aug. 3 statement.
Ventrell’s criticism “completely ignored the facts, deliberately confounded right and wrong” and isn’t conducive to efforts for peace and stability in the region, Qin Gang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in an Aug. 4 statement. China also summoned Robert Wang, the acting representative of the U.S. embassy in Beijing, to complain about the U.S. statement and request that he report Chinese concerns “to the top U.S. leadership immediately,” according to a separate statement on the ministry’s website.
Tensions have been rising in the region as China has sought to establish a city and military garrison in the Paracel Islands and to physically block foreign access to a disputed reef off the coast of the Philippines, according to the U.S. State Department. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei also claim rights to islands in the sea.
“What we’re seeing is a significant ratcheting up of Chinese pressure on the region to basically acquiesce that the South China Sea is Chinese territory,” Dean Cheng, a researcher on Chinese political and security issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said in a telephone interview.
China’s assertiveness in the region coincides with preparations for a political and military transition. Communist party leaders are believed to be meeting to select new members for the country’s Politburo and Standing Committee, the nation’s civilian leaders, and its Central Military Commission, which controls the military, Cheng said. In October or November, the full party Congress will convene to select a new president to replace Hu Jintao in a once-a-decade leadership handover.
“Nobody wants to look weak,” Cheng said.
The Chinese government is also seeking to stem a six-quarter slowdown in economic growth and maintain social stability in advance of the political transition. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said last month that economic difficulties may persist for a while as downward pressure on the economy remains “relatively large,” and warned of a “severe” labor outlook.
The U.S. has no territorial ambitions of its own in the South China Sea and doesn’t take a position on disputes over the islands, Ventrell said. The competing nations should resolve their claims with diplomacy and “without the use of force,” he said.
Cheng said the U.S. interest is primarily in free navigation through the region. The South China Sea sea lanes are particularly important to the economies of U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, he said.
The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, published a commentary on Aug. 4 telling the U.S. to “behave itself” in the dispute.
“When an outsider attempts to make bigger waves, he is probably already on the beach waiting to pick up what will wash ashore,” the news agency said. The new city, Sansha, and garrison in the Paracels is a “normal adjustment of China’s administrative and military structure,” Xinhua said.
In 1974, Chinese forces took the 30 islets and reefs that comprise the Paracels from Vietnam. Vietnam and China have recently invited oil companies to explore overlapping parts of the region, criticizing each other in the process. China is the second-largest oil consumer after the U.S.
The dispute over the Paracels is one of several between China and its neighbors. The country is also quarreling with Japan over the Senkaku islands, called Diaoyu in China, and Russia detained two Chinese fishing boats that sailed into waters it claims off its Far East region. China has resisted a Filipino suggestion that an international body determine territorial claims over parts of the South China Sea.
China’s establishment of a prefecture government for the Paracels “represents the next step in China’s strategy to make the South China Sea the internal waters of China,” said John McCreary, a retired U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, in the July 24 edition of Nightwatch newsletter by Kforce Government Solutions, Inc. “The phase of diplomatic interactions and negotiations with the Southeast Asian countries has ended,” he wrote, predicting “a limited arms race for patrol ships” among China’s neighbors.
Any military conflict in the South China Sea might draw in the U.S. The Philippines is a U.S. ally, and the two countries have a mutual protection pact. While the treaty doesn’t cover disputed territories in the South China Sea, an attack on Filipino ships or other assets could trigger a U.S. response, Cheng said.