Kerry Rejects China Zone, Urges South China Sea Stability

Secretary of State John Kerry said U.S. military operations won’t be deterred by China’s air defense identification zone in the East China Sea and said there should be no moves to replicate the zone farther south.

China shouldn’t take unilateral actions similar to one it made Nov. 23, when it declared the defense zone that covers areas claimed by neighbors Japan and South Korea, Kerry told reporters yesterday during a visit to Hanoi. A U.S. Navy ship had a confrontation Dec. 5 with a Chinese military vessel in the South China Sea, where China has territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines.

“China’s announcement will not affect U.S. military operations in the region,” Kerry said, adding that the U.S. doesn’t recognize the defense area across a swath of the East China Sea. “The zone should not be implemented, and China should refrain from taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere, particularly in the South China Sea.”

Kerry’s visit to Vietnam and the Philippines underscores the strategic importance of Southeast Asia as China becomes increasingly assertive in the air and seas off its coast. China has sought to defuse tensions in the South China Sea, agreeing to talks on a code of conduct for the waters.

“Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us and for countries in the region,” Kerry said after meeting Vietnam’s Foreign minister Pham Binh Minh. “We are very concerned by and strongly opposed to coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims.”

Ship Confrontation

The U.S. will boost assistance for maritime patrols and disaster response in Southeast Asia, including $32.5 million to build capacity and $18 million to provide five fast patrol vessels in 2014 to the Vietnamese Coast Guard, Kerry said.

The U.S. Navy ship that had a confrontation with a Chinese military vessel in the South China Sea posed a threat to national security, China’s Global Times newspaper said in an editorial. The U.S. vessel got close to China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier, which was deployed last month to the South China Sea, the paper said.

“America is clearly right up against the front door of China,” the Global Times said. “The American ship coming close to the Liaoning for reconnaissance is already not ’innocent passage’ -- it is already a threat to China’s national security.”

In a call on Dec. 15, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Kerry he hopes the two countries will “deepen strategic trust and cooperation” and “properly handle issues of sensitivity and difference,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

‘Resolved Professionally’

At the Pentagon, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman, told reporters yesterday, “I don’t think it was a crisis-level incident by any stretch.”

“This was ships at sea operating the way ships at sea operate,” he said. “I don’t believe tensions have heightened. We have not changed any procedures since the incident. We believe collectively that this was resolved professionally.”

The USS Cowpens, operating in international waters, and a Chinese naval vessel “had an encounter that required maneuvering to avoid a collision,” the U.S. Pacific Fleet said Dec. 13 in a statement. The U.S. government lodged protests over the incident with Chinese officials in Beijing and Washington, according to a State Department official who asked not to be named because he was discussing the content of diplomatic communications.

Chinese Version

The USS Cowpens was tailing and harassing the Liaoning formation and took offensive action on the day of the confrontation, the Global Times said in a separate news article, citing a source familiar with the confrontation that it didn’t identify. The Global Times is owned by the People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.

“China respects the freedom of navigation and overflight that is in accordance with international laws,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing in Beijing yesterday.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga continued verbal exchanges yesterday with China over the zone, after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sparked an angry response from China by saying Dec. 14 that China’s action infringed on freedom of flight over the high seas.

Historical Evidence

“China should attach importance to the fact that many countries in the international community are concerned about the air defense identification zone and should treat this seriously,” Suga told reporters at a briefing in Tokyo.

China, citing historical evidence such as pottery shards, claims a tongue-shaped swath of the South China Sea demarcated by nine dashes that extends hundreds of miles south from Hainan Island to the equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo.

Because the sea is close to China in many cases it belongs under the scope of Chinese military deterrence, the Global Times said.

“The Chinese navy cannot allow the U.S. military vessels to do whatever they want there,” it said.