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Obama had said that “bigger nations should not bully smaller ones”.
During a televised address to the Vietnamese people during his trip to the former enemy country, he added that Washington supported its partners seeking undeterred access to maritime navigation in Southeast Asia.
But Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunyin questioned whether Obama referred to freedom of navigation under international law for all nations or whether this was a means to guarantee access for American military units.
“If the former, of course we welcome it with open arms, we protect it and resolutely support it. But if it is the latter, I think the international community would not agree,” she added during a press conference in Beijing.
Hua’s criticism comes after the state-owned People’s Daily strongly rebuked the Philippines for “distorting facts” and “purposely misinterpreting United Nations conventions regarding Manila’s claim to Chinese islands in the South China Sea”.
“China’s historical rights within the dotted line in the South China Sea are not deniable despite the attempt of the Philippines to question them by distorting facts,” the newspaper said.
It’s retort of Manila’s claims comes just two days ahead of a G7 Summit in Ise Shima, Japan, which will discuss the health of the world economy and issues of maritime security and territorial disputes – particularly in the South China and East China Seas.
The G7 Summit comprises a conference of leaders from the United States, Canada France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
According to press statements published in the Philippines, the G7 leaders will likely call for peaceful resolutions of all disputes in the region, but will nonetheless express their strong opposition to “island construction and militarization of outposts in the South China Sea”.
Speaking ahead of the summit, Japanese Foreign Ministry official Masato Otaka said that the Summit would “reaffirm the importance of ‘rule of law’”.
The South China Sea, which official Chinese data indicates is 3.55 million square kms, is one of the world’s most strategically important waterways and is exceedingly rich with minerals.
More than $5 trillion of world trade travels every year through the South China Sea.
China, which claims about 2 million square kms of the maritime territory, has always maintained that “the situation in the South China Sea is stable. China and the countries of the [ASEAN] have kept a good-neighborly relationship”.
But Vietnam and the Philippines dispute China’s claim over the maritime region.
China claims it has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha (or Spratly) Islands and its adjacent waters according to the “nine-dash line” that it has delineated at the South China Sea, waters which carry around half of the world’s trade and possibly contains rich reserves of oil and gas.
On Chinese maps, the “nine-dash” territorial demarcation envelops virtually the entire South China Sea.
The islands are off the coasts of Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Philippines, a major non-NATO ally of the US in the Pacific and an ASEAN member, had previously agreed to allow the United States access to its military bases under a new security deal.
The deal will allow the United States to increase deployment of American troops, ships and aircrafts in the region.
This aids US plans to “rebalance” its forces in Asia-Pacific region for the Asia Pivot.
Upping the ante?
US naval exercises in the disputed waters have drawn sharp rebukes from China.
Tensions between Beijing and Washington were exacerbated when Admiral Harry Harris, chief of the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) accused China of militarizing the South China Sea in unusually harsh comments made earlier this year.
“You’d have to believe in a flat earth to believe otherwise,” he added at the time.
Last week, Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesman Yang Yujun strongly criticized a Pentagon report which said that China has reclaimed more than 3,200 acres (1,300 hectares) of land on seven features it occupied in the disputed islands in the space of two years.
The report, which is released annually, accused China of developing and weaponizing the islands by building runways and intelligence surveillance capabilities.
“This would improve China’s ability to detect and challenge activities by rival claimants or third parties, widen the range of capabilities available to China, and reduce the time required to deploy them,” the Pentagon report said.
But Yang said the report ‘deliberately distorted’ China’s defense policies, and ‘unfairly depicted’ China’s activities in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
“China follows a national defense policy that is defensive in nature. Moves such as deepening military reforms and the military buildup are aimed at maintaining sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, and guaranteeing China’s peaceful development,” Yang said.
It is the United States that has always been suspicious and flexing its military muscle by frequently sending military aircraft and warships to the region, he added.
But He Yafei, a former vice-minister of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council, and former vice-minister of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, believes that both countries need to build a new type of big-power relations based on the principle of “no-conflict, no-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win through cooperation”.
The success stories of China-US cooperation on climate change and economic growth are two of many examples that two nations need to follow wholeheartedly, he recently wrote.
The BRICS Post with inputs from Agencies