Western navies that sail warships near contested islands in the South China Sea are risking a military confrontation, according to a top Chinese diplomat.
“No one should underestimate China’s will to safeguard its national sovereignty, security and development interests,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, said Wednesday in remarks published Thursday.
China asserts sovereignty over contested islands in the South China Sea, based on historical claims that an international tribunal at the Hague has judged to be illegitimate. But Chinese President Xi Jinping first expanded the islands artificially and then deployed military assets to the installations. Western powers have conducted “freedom of navigation” operations near the islands in order to assert their position that the they are in international waters.
Liu derided the operations as examples of “some big countries outside the region” meddling in the controversy, which covers one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. The South China Sea also holds massive energy reserves, making it a chokepoint for global commerce and an economic resource in its own right.
“They sent warships and aircraft all the way to the South China Sea to create trouble,” he told a diplomatic assembly in London. “Under the excuse of so-called ‘freedom of navigation,’ they ignored the vast sea lane and chose to sail into the adjacent waters of China’s islands and reefs to show off their military might. This was a serious infringement upon China’s sovereignty. It threatened China’s security and put regional peace and stability in jeopardy.”
The British Navy sent an amphibious assault ship past the Paracel Islands in late August, drawing a protest from China. The United States has also sent B-52 bombers and reconnaissance aircraft over the Spratly Islands, which are “less than 150 miles off the Philippines’ Palawan Island but is 600 miles from China’s own Hainan Island,” as a Forbes report noted.
China’s sovereignty claims have raised expectations of an eventual military clash in the region, in which the United States will be forced to choose between confronting China or breaking defense promises made to the Philippines. “And if we don’t, then every ally that the U.S. has globally is gonna start wondering what the price is on their head because the Philippines aren’t worth standing up for,” Gregory Poling, a regional expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in February.
But Liu maintained that other nations are perceiving threats where none exist.
“The truth is the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea has never been a problem,” he said in London. “Freedom of navigation is not a license to do whatever one wishes. Freedom of navigation is not freedom to invade in other country’s territorial waters and infringe upon other country’s sovereignty. Such ‘freedom’ must be stopped. Otherwise the South China Sea will never be tranquil.”