Navy patrols risk destabilizing South China Sea, Xinhua says

HONG KONG — The U.S. risks destabilizing the South China Sea region if it goes ahead with naval patrols inside the 12 nautical-mile zones of islands that China claims as territory, according to an editorial by the official Xinhua News Agency.

The Obama administration is reportedly considering freedom of navigation operations near islands that China has reclaimed in a building program that has created 2,900 acres in the Spratly Islands as of June. Some of the islands were submerged at high tide before the reclamation activities started, meaning they don’t generate a 12-mile zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“If Washington goes ahead with the patrol plan, it should bear responsibility for escalating tensions in the region, raising danger of miscalculation, and complicating the efforts to seek diplomatic resolution of the disputes,” Xinhua wrote in the editorial.

The news agency argued the plan contradicts Washington’s stance that it doesn’t take a position on South China Sea territorial disputes; that the U.S. doesn’t need to exert freedom of navigation because China hasn’t threatened the flow of commerce in the waters; and that there is no need for the U.S. to act to prevent militarization of the waters because China has no intention of pursuing militarization of the newly reclaimed islands.

“Beijing has clearly stated that its construction of facilities in the region is mainly for the purposes of maintenance, improving living conditions for the stationed personnel and providing common goods to the international community by offering service to foreign ships sailing in the region,” Xinhua wrote. “The U.S. move, if carried out, will leave China no choice but to beef up its defense capabilities.”

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, based on a so-called nine dash line for which it won’t give precise coordinates. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims.

China is mounting an offensive against possible U.S. freedom of navigation operations. At the start of an informal meeting of defense ministers from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Beijing on Friday, China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan proposed joint naval drills in the South China Sea next year on accidental encounters at sea, search-and- rescue and disaster relief, according to a microblog on the ministry’s website.

The meeting is being held on the sidelines of the 6th Xiangshan Forum, where government officials, military leaders and experts will discuss maritime security issues under the heading “Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific Region: Reality and Prospect.” The defense ministers of 16 countries will attend the forum, including those from Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, Xinhua reported.

U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said Thursday in Tokyo that U.S. naval voyages in the South China Sea aren’t provocative, but part of the U.S. Navy’s “normal business as a global navy.”

“We urge the U.S. side to work with China and play a responsible and constructive role in maintaining peace and stability of the South China Sea,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Thursday. “We firmly oppose any country using the freedom of navigation and over-flight as an excuse to undermine other countries’ sovereignty and security.”

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