China said on Tuesday it had “irrefutable” sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea after the White House vowed to defend “international territories” in the strategic waterway.
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White House spokesman Sean Spicer in his comments on Monday signalled a sharp departure from years of cautious US handling of China’s assertive pursuit of territorial claims in Asia.
“The US is going to make sure that we protect our interests there,” Spicer said when asked if Trump agreed with comments by his secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson. On Jan. 11, Tillerson said China should not be allowed access to islands it has built in the contested South China Sea. “It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country,” Spicer said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing on Tuesday “the United States is not a party to the South China Sea dispute”. China claims most of the South China Sea, while Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei claims parts of the sea that commands strategic sealanes and has rich fishing grounds along with oil and gas deposits.
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China’s sovereignty over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea was “irrefutable” Hua said. But China was also dedicated to protecting freedom of navigation and wants talks with nations directly involved to find a peaceful solution. “We urge the United States to respect the facts, speak and act cautiously to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” Hua said. “Our actions in the South China Sea are reasonable and fair. No matter what changes happen in other countries, what they say or what they want to do, China’s resolve to protect its sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea will not change,” she added.
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Tillerson’s remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing prompted Chinese state media to say at the time that the United States would need to “wage war” to bar China’s access to the islands, where it has built military-length air strips and installed weapons systems. Tillerson was asked at the hearing whether he supported a more aggressive posture toward China and said: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
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The former Exxon Mobil Corp chairman and chief executive did not elaborate on what might be done to deny China access to the islands. But analysts said his comments, like those of Spicer, suggested the possibility of US military action, or even a naval blockade. Such action would risk an armed confrontation with China, an increasingly formidable nuclear-armed military power. It is also the world’s second-largest economy and the target of Trump accusations it is stealing American jobs.