China on Trump Team’s Vow to Protect South China Sea: ‘Be Cautious’

SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 2016: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT) A satellite image of Subi Reef, an artificial island being developed by China in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Image taken 4 September 2016. (Photo by USGS/NASA Landsat data/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
USGS/NASA Landsat data/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to remarks from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Monday suggesting the United States would not allow China to continue illegally occupying territory in the South China Sea with a warning: “Be cautious.”

“The US is not a claimant in the related disputes in the South China Sea,” she told reporters during the Foreign Ministry’s daily press briefing Tuesday. “We urge the US side to respect the reality, to be cautious in its remarks and actions, so as to avoid undermining the peace and stability in the region.” She added that China’s occupation of most of the South China Sea — including territory claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia — was “reasonable and fair.”

“China’s resolve to protect its sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea will not change,” she concluded.

“Hua said that China exerts indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and its adjacent waters, and China is firmly committed to safeguarding its own sovereignty and maritime rights,” according to the Chinese state media outlet Xinhua.

The Chinese government claims most of the sea in a border known as the “nine-dash line,” which cuts through the territory of the aforementioned five countries and the waters off of Natuna Island, Indonesia. Beijing has invested heavily in building artificial islands on reefs, particularly in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, and placing military assets on those islands like surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets. The Philippines, which claims parts of both island chains, won a case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in 2016, which China has vowed to ignore.

While President Barack Obama authorized semi-regular “freedom of navigation” exercises near the disputed territories, the Trump administration appears to be taking a more hard-line stand on the issue, which affects the sovereignty of multiple American allies. The Chinese government did not allow Obama-era actions to go unanswered, however, stealing an unmanned U.S. drone out of international waters in the South China Sea shortly before the end of his term.

“If those islands are, in fact, in international waters and not part of China proper, yeah, we’ll make sure we defend international interests from being taken over by one country,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Monday. “The U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there.”

Spicer was responding to a question regarding comments made by President Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who told a Senate panel, “we’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first the island building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed.”

Hua’s comments on Tuesday carried a sterner tone than those on Monday, before Spicer’s remarks. “On issues of territory, you all know that China holds a firm position on issues concerning its sovereignty and territory,” Hua told reporters on Monday. “We hope that the Chinese and American sides will respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, approach and manage the disagreements in a constructive way to prevent them from disrupting the overall bilateral relations.”

Chinese state-run publications, which have called for war with the United States over its support of allies in the region, were more measured in their criticism Tuesday. China Daily, among the less belligerent Beijing-controlled publications, argued that Spicer’s comments Monday were “no cause for a military confrontation with China.” The publication called war a “worst-case probability” and warned that “if there is to be ‘war’ in the South China Sea it will be because of actions by the US military,” but it emphasized that China does not “threaten… legitimate U.S. interests in the South China Sea.”