KUALA LUMPUR — Ongoing tensions over the South China Sea heightened over the weekend, with China reacting angrily to the latest indications of growing U.S.- Japanese co-operation over the disputed sea.
Neither the U.S. nor Japan has a claim over the waters, unlike China, which claims around 80% of the sea. The Philippines, Vietnam and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also have claims to parts of the South China Sea, through which around $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday suggested Japan’s Self-Defense Force units could be sent to the area to protect freedom of navigation. His words — the latest signal of Japan’s nascent military assertiveness — backed recent U.S. moves to sail naval vessels through and fly bombers close to areas in which China has been building islands.
Reacting to Abe, Hong Lei, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said, “China will be vigilant against Japan’s interference in the South China Sea issue, its military return to the South China Sea in particular.”
China is using the islands — partly made by dredging seafloor sand onto and around existing reefs and islets — to buttress its case that its territorial waters cover much of the South China Sea.
The U.S., meanwhile, is accusing China of using the artificial islands to undermine freedom of navigation; it describes the islets as military outposts.
Chinese naval commander Wu Shengli said his battalions have shown “enormous restraint” in the face of what he termed American provocations. His ships, he added, are ready to “defend our national sovereignty.”
While the Philippines and Vietnam have joined the U.S. in butting heads with China over the issue, ASEAN has typically avoided either forging a unified position regarding the South China Sea or directly backing member-states.
ASEAN members Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei also claim waters in the South China Sea but for the most part have not locked horns with China over the issue.