WASHINGTON DC—The United States on Friday criticized China’s new military garrison in the contested South China Sea as risking an escalation in tensions.
The State Department statement underscored US concerns about situation in the resource-rich sea, a potential flashpoint. It voiced strong support for diplomatic efforts by Southeast Asian nations to negotiate with China, the region’s rising military power which claims virtually all of the sea for itself and would prefer Washington to stay out of the matter.
The Senate on Thursday also urged restraint among the claimant states—China and five of its neighbors—and said the US was committed to assisting Southeast Asian nations remaining “strong and independent.”
Washington’s response comes 10 days after China formally established Sansha City on a remote island, 350 kilometers (220 miles) from its southernmost province. Sansha is intended to administer hundreds of thousands of square miles of water where China wants to strengthen its control over disputed, and potentially oil-rich islands. The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, has described China’s move as unacceptable. Vietnam called it a violation of international law.
The State Department said the new city and military garrison, “run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.”
Beijing has announced plans to set up such a garrison for Sansha, and has named officers to lead it, but has provided no other details.
The US statement also follows an acrimonious annual meeting of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) last month, where for the first time in its 45-year history, the bloc failed to issue a joint communiqué. The host country, Cambodia, viewed as pro-Beijing, rejected a proposal by the Philippines and Vietnam to mention their separate territorial disputes with China.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic Studies think tank in Washington, said the US seeks to shore up Asean unity and weaken China’s ability to intimidate and coerce its neighbors.
She noted that the statement, which follows high-level deliberations within the Obama administration on the issue, makes no mention of other claimant nations’ actions as provocative. That would annoy China, “which increasingly views the US as taking sides and emboldening Vietnam and the Philippines to confront China on South China Sea matters,” Glaser said.
The statement noted an uptick in “confrontational rhetoric, disagreements over resource exploitation, coercive economic actions,” and criticized the use of barriers to block access to the Scarborough Reef, scene of a standoff between Chinese and the Philippine vessels since April. It urged Asean and China to make progress on a code of conduct for addressing disagreements in the South China Sea.
The standoff at the reef, which the Philippines views as lying within its exclusive economic zone, began after Chinese fishing boats were stopped by the Philippine vessels. Manila deployed a navy ship, supplied by the US the previous year, leading China to send more vessels of its own and quarantine Philippine fruit exports to China. Manila says Beijing has not fully complied with a June agreement—supported by the US—for a mutual withdrawal and has used barriers to block Philippine access to the reef.
China is also critical of Vietnam, which passed a law in June stating its jurisdiction over the Paracel and Spratly Island chains and declaring that all foreign naval ships entering these areas must notify Vietnamese authorities.
The United States, which has tens of thousands of forces based in the Asia-Pacific, views itself as a stabilizing influence in the region, and its diplomacy on the South China Sea, where it says it holds on position on the competing sovereignty claims, has helped boost its standing in Southeast Asia. But criticism of China risks straining ties with Beijing that the US also sees as crucial for regional stability.
Republican contender Mitt Romney has accused President Barack Obama of being soft on China, and has promised to get tougher, particularly over Beijing’s trading practices.