China has reacted angrily to reports of possible joint patrolling by the US and India in the South China Sea, most of which is claimed by Beijing, saying the region should not be militarised by countries from “outside the area”.
Chinese officials took time out from the week-long national New Year holiday to warn the US and India against any naval patrolling in the disputed waters. They were responding to a media report that Washington and New Delhi had discussed joint patrols, including in the South China Sea.
China lays claim to most of the South China Sea but is locked in dispute with Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam over the ownership of islands in the region.
“No cooperation between any countries should be directed at a third party,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said in an emailed statement to Reuters.
“Countries from outside the area must stop pushing forward the militarisation of the South China Sea, cease endangering the sovereignty and national security of littoral countries in the name of ‘freedom of navigation’ and harming the peace and stability of the region,” Hong said.
“We hope that the relevant parties speak and act with caution, refrain from intervening in the South China Sea issue, and especially avoid being manipulated by certain countries and ultimately harming their own interests.”
A US defence official told Hindustan Time that India and the US had held “informal discussions” on conducting joint naval patrols but no decisions had been made. The officials further said the South China Sea did not figure in those discussions, contrary to a Reuters report on Wednesday which said the two countries planned to start the patrols within the year.
Sources in the Indian defence ministry described the report as “highly speculative”. Indian officials also noted that the country had never conducted joint patrols with any country and there was no change in the government’s policy of joining an international military effort only under the UN flag.
Any mention of the South China Sea in international diplomacy triggers a sharp reaction from China, which says no country, other than those involved in the disputes, has the right to be involved.
China has become more assertive in the region and has been building airfields and increasing its naval presence.
When the September trilateral dialogue among the foreign ministers of Japan, India and the US mentioned the South China Sea, Beijing responded with a pointed statement to Hindustan Times.
“China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and their adjacent waters as well as sovereign rights and jurisdiction over relevant seabed and subsoil,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a written statement.
The response mentioned the “Five Persistence” policy followed by China. “…we have always adhered to the principle of “Five Persistence”, which stands for persistence in maintaining the peace and stability of South China Sea; persistence in settling disputes with the party concerned according to the international laws via bilateral negotiation based on respect for historical facts; persistence in relying on rule-based system to control disputes; persistence in sustaining the freedom of flight and navigation in South China Sea.”