China rejects US criticism of military drills in South China Sea

The US accuses China of militarising the South China Sea. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON / BEIJING (REUTERS, AFP) - China on Friday (July 3) rejected criticism by the US Defence Department of its plan to hold military exercises in the South China Sea, and suggested that Washington was to blame for increased tensions in the region.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, asked about the Pentagon's comments during a daily briefing in Beijing, said the military exercises are within the scope of China's sovereignty and said that certain "non-regional countries" conducting military exercises in the South China Sea are affecting the region's stability.

Mr Zhao did not name any countries, but the US has conducted multiple freedom of navigation operations by sending its warships through the area to assert the freedom of access to international waterways.

Earlier on Thursday, the Pentagon said in a statement said conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea was "counter-productive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability".

China announced last week it had scheduled five days of drills starting July 1 near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both Vietnam and China.

"The military exercises are the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its South-east Asian neighbours in the South China Sea," the statement said, referring to the People's Republic of China.

The activities "further destabilise the situation" in the area.

It added such exercises also violate Beijing's commitments under the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.

The declaration, signed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries, said that all parties would "avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability."

Vietnam and the Philippines have also criticised the planned Chinese drills, warning it could create tension in the region and impact Beijing's relationship with its neighbours.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin warned China on Friday "it will be met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate" should the exercises spill over to Philippine territory.

"To be sure, China is just as entitled, as any other power, to invoke freedom of navigation in its military exercises. But that freedom, it bears reminding, requires a straight and uninterrupted voyage," Mr Locsin said.

The United States accuses China of militarising the South China Sea and trying to intimidate Asian neighbours who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.

The Chinese exercises are taking place amid a rise in US-China tensions over the novel coronavirus epidemic, in which Washington has accused Beijing of hiding and downplaying the initial outbreak which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

China claims 90 per cent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it, through which about US$3 trillion (S$4.1 trillion) of trade passes each year.

Washington has rejected Beijing's territorial claim to much of the South China Sea, including the Paracels. The region is believed to have valuable oil and gas deposits.

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