America’s top military commander for the Pacific is warning that a dangerous arms race over the disputed waters of the South China Sea could “engulf” the region.
Commander Admiral Scott Swift urged nations, like China, to seek arbitration to settle maritime disputes.
China claims most of the South China Sea, but Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also claim parts of it. Experts say these nations have become increasingly tempted to use military force to settle territorial fights, instead of international law.
“My concern is that after many decades of peace and prosperity, we may be seeing the leading edge of a return of “might makes it right” to the region,” Swift said.
China’s Defence Ministry told Reuters that “in an attempt to sow confusion and muddy the waters, certain countries are wantonly expressing remarks to create tensions.”
Back in October, China’s Naval commander warned the U.S. to stop its “provocative acts” in the contested waterway, after a U.S. warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of Beijing’s man-made islands. Beijing is building seven man-made islands on reefs in the Spratly Islands, including a 10,000-foot airstrip on one of the sites, according to satellite imagery of the area.
State-run media reported that China has been building up its “civilian infrastructure” in the South China Sea, opening its first school on Woody Island over the weekend.
While speaking to naval commanders from Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries, Swift said: “Even now, ships and aircraft operating nearby these features, in accordance with international law are subject to superfluous warnings that threaten routine commercial and military operations.”
In a challenge to China’s island building program, Manila has asked The Hague to affirm its right to areas “within 200 nautical miles of its coastline,” under the terms of a U.N. convention.
Adm. Swift said that The Arbitration Tribunal’s case between the Philippines and China “could become the latest opportunity to demonstrate lawful access to regional prosperity for all nations.”
China described the arbitration case as a “farce” and has rejected the court’s jurisdiction. The tribunal has no powers of enforcement and its verdicts have sometimes been ignored.
More than $5 trillion of world trade ships go through the South China Sea every year — a fifth of it heading to and from U.S. ports.
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