The Chinese military declared on Friday that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea but insisted it would continue to allow others to freely navigate one of the busiest waterways in the world.
The statement by the People’s Liberation Army seemed designed to reiterate China’s claims to the entire 1.3 million-square-mile waterway while calming concerns in Washington and Asian capitals that its policy toward the region had suddenly become significantly more aggressive.
“China has indisputable sovereignty of the South Sea, and China has sufficient historical and legal backing” to support its claims, Senior Col. Geng Yansheng, a defence ministry spokesman, told reporters on Friday during a visit to an engineering unit outside Beijing.
But he added, “We will, in accordance with the demands of international law, respect the freedom of the passage of ships or aircraft from relevant countries.”
Geng’s remarks were in reaction to a push last week by the US, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries to challenge China’s claims to the whole sea.
In Hanoi on July 23, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a regional security forum that it was in the US’ “national interest” that freedom of navigation be maintained in the sea. Clinton also challenged China’s claims to the whole sea, through which half of all shipped merchant tonnage passes each year.
US and Asian officials have said Vietnam and the US spearheaded the push in part over concerns that China’s navy has become increasingly aggressive in the sea, seizing fishing boats and arresting sailors from other countries. Exchanges of gunfire have also occurred in recent months, officials said.
China’s claims to the South China Sea stretch back at least to the 1930s, when official maps from China contained the whole sea as Chinese territory.
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