The government of China is making increasingly clear that it is not comfortable with the looming presence of the United States over its multiple disputes in the South China Sea against the Philippines and Vietnam, noting in a statement that it would rather “countries outside the region strictly maintain their neutrality.”
In a statement denouncing the practice of “illegally occupying” islands on the South China Sea by other sovereigns, the Chinese Foreign Ministry once against asserted its territorial sovereignty over a number of islands in the region, particularly the Spratly Islands and the South Johnson Reef. China, Reuters notes, claims “90% of the South China Sea,” including not only the islands and reefs, but a number of natural resources, including oil and gas deposits, which would be extremely beneficial to the country. Reuters adds that “Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also lay claim to parts of the sea.”
China “hopes that countries outside the region strictly maintain their neutrality, clearly distinguish right from wrong and earnestly respect the joint efforts of countries in the region to maintain regional peace and stability”, the statement concluded, in what appeared to be a clear reference to the United States.
The United States has not made any explicit moves in aiding other countries against China’s disputes in the region, though it has inched closer to governments that oppose China’s imposition of sovereignty on those territories. In April, the United States established an agreement with the Philippines which would allow the U.S. military a decade-long presence on the islands, also making clear that the United States has treaty obligations with the Philippines that would require intervention should China resort to military action.
The United States has taken a similar path regarding disputes with Japan in the East China Sea. There, President Obama visited Japan and reiterated that the United States has a responsibility to protect any sovereign Japanese territory from Chinese incursion, including the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited group of islands believed to contain natural resources.
The United States does not, however, have similar obligations with nations like Vietnam, which China appears to be actively inflaming tensions with in the South China Sea. An oil rig placed near the disputed Paracel Islands raised alarm for months from the Vietnamese government, though this week the Chinese government announced that the oil rig had finished its exploration mission and would return home. Also troubling Vietnam is alleged island building on the South Johnson Reef, which China considers its sovereign territory despite both Vietnam and the Philippines disputing it.