Beijing has conducted massive development in the disputed sea over the past two years and is accused of militarisaton.
Singapore – Asia’s largest defence summit concluded on Sunday amid growing fears of a legal and military showdown in the South China Sea over China’s rapid construction of artificial islands with ports, airstrips and helipads in one of the world’s most bitterly contested waterways.
At the weekend-long Shangri-La Dialogue , Chinese military officials vowed to ignore a legal ruling expected in the next few weeks by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a Philippines’ challenge to China’s growing assertiveness in the key sea route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
“We do not make trouble, but we have no fear of trouble,” said Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, who led the Chinese delegation at the summit.
Sun added: “China will not bear with the arbitration award, nor will it allow any infringement of its sovereignty.”
The Hague court is expected to rule on the legality of the so-called “nine-dash line”, China’s cartographic marker that it uses to claim territorial rights over most of the resource-rich sea. China’s claimed sovereignty stretches hundreds of kilometres to the south and east of its most southerly province of Hainan, covering hundreds of disputed islands and reefs.
The nine-dash line, first shown on a 1947 Chinese map, carves out an area that runs deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia, and overlaps claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China has boycotted The Hague tribunal’s proceedings and instead wants bilateral talks with rival claimants, all of which lack China’s economic and military prowess.
Meanwhile, the US has stepped up military patrols and exercises in the South China Sea, and pledges to ensure freedom of navigation and flight – acts that China considers provocative and targeted at its sovereignty and security interests.
The increased patrols of US littoral combat ships, jet fighters, and surveillance planes near Chinese-held islands come as China is reportedly close to imposing an Air Defence Identification Zone, which would require civilian aircraft to identify themselves to military controllers in the region. Beijing made a similar declaration two years ago in the East China Sea over several islands contested by Japan.
On Saturday, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the summit that China’s militarisation of the South China Sea is destabilising the region, and urged it to abide by the pending international tribunal legal ruling.
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“Countries across the region have been taking action and voicing concerns publicly and privately, at the highest levels, in regional meetings, and global fora,” Carter said.
“As a result, China’s actions in the South China Sea are isolating it at a time when the entire region is coming together and networking. Unfortunately, if these actions continue, China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation.”
While calling for diplomatic and legal solutions to the territorial disputes, Carter warned that the US will continue to “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows”.
Carter also warned that Chinese construction on a South China Sea islet claimed by the Philippines would lead to “actions being taken” by the US and other nations, but he did not elaborate.
Major-General Yao Yunzhu, of the People’s Liberation Army, speaking at the summit on Saturday, said the US military’s presence in the disputed waters are unwarranted and could be interpreted as “battlefield preparations”.
“China has said many times that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not in trouble at all,” said Yao, who is also a senior researcher at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science.
She added, “I don’t think any state has the right to impose its own understanding of freedom of navigation as a universal rule and label those who do not agree as a default violator of freedom of navigation or even a violator of the rule-based international maritime order.”
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Yao also defended China’s nine-dash line, which critics say is legally ambiguous. She said it allows “China and other claimants to have more room to manoeuvre and to have more room to compromise.”
The US and China traded harsh accusations in May after what the Pentagon said was an “unsafe” encounter between two Chinese fighter jets and a US military reconnaissance aircraft flying over the South China Sea.
While territorial disputes in the waters date back in some cases for centuries, China has created islands and installed military hardware at a rapid pace and now asserts sovereignty over most of the 3.5 million-square-kilometre waterway.
Last month, a Pentagon report claimed China has added more than 1,300 hectares of land over two years in the Spratly Islands archipelago.
“China often uses a progression of small, incremental steps to increase its effective control over disputed territories and avoid escalation to military conflict,” the report stated.
Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun, quoted by the Associated Press following the report’s release, called it “hyped up” and expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with its findings.
Tensions in the South China Sea are expected to drive up Asia-Pacific defence spending by nearly 25 percent from 2015 to $533bn in 2020, according security think-tank IHS Jane’s.
“By 2020, the centre of gravity of the global defence spending landscape is expected to have continued its gradual shift away from the developed economies of Western Europe and North America, and towards emerging markets, particularly in Asia,” said Paul Burton, director of IHS Jane’s.
The South China Sea territorial dispute has spilled over into presidential campaigns in at least two countries.
Incoming Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte made headlines during his campaign by saying that he would ride a jet ski to plant a Philippine flag on China’s man-made islands.
In the US, presumptive Republican Party nominee Donald Trump accused China of building “a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen”.
Follow Tom Benner on Twitter: @tgbenner
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