In his remarks at Center for a New American Security (CNAS) on Friday, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken compared China’s expansionist island-building exercises in the South China Sea to the threat of Russia in eastern Ukraine.
Calling China’s large-scale reclamation projects in the South China Sea “a threat to peace and stability,” Blinken said that while the United States does not take a position on the merits of “competing sovereignty claims” in the South China Sea, it has “a strong interest in how those claims are pursued, and in preserving freedom of navigation, sustaining peace and stability, and upholding international law and norms.”
The Spratly Islands - Nansha Islands in Chinese - in the South China Sea are an archipelago that has no indigenous inhabitants but may contain natural gas and oil reserves. Countries which claim rights over the Spratlys include the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and China.
Blinken conceded that other claimants to the South China Sea are also engaged in reclamation projects, however they are dwarfed in comparison to China’s efforts.
He said that the United States has suggested to all parties to put a hold on all reclamation activities, as well as any militarisation on these manmade islands.
“If you do that, you create the time and space to actually resolve the differences that exist through peaceful means, whether it’s arbitration, whether it’s adjudication, whether it’s by bilateral means,” he added.
Talking about the United States’ role and responsibility, Blinken admitted “we know that we cannot solve all the world’s problems, and we cannot fully solve any of them alone.” He pointed out, however, that America has “a unique capacity to mobilise against common threats and lead the international community to meet them,” which, he said, was the case in Ukraine and in the South China Sea.
Blinken likened the conflicts in Ukraine and the South China Sea, in that “in both [cases], we’re witnessing efforts to unilaterally and coercively change the status quo – transgressions that the United States and our allies and partners stand united against.”
China says it has every right to build up reefs in the South China Sea, whose majority it claims. After talks with the United States this week, China’s top diplomat State Councilor Yang Jiechi said that freedom of navigation in the Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes, was guaranteed.
While talks between the United States and China were being held in Washington DC were being held this week, China continued its construction activity in the South China Sea which was reported by Philippine officials as well as US military and independent defense analysts.
“We are committed to operate safely in international waters as we believe every nation has the right to do and we look forward to operating throughout southeast Asia,” Fred Kacher, US Navy captain, told the Guardian.
Kacher, who helped oversee annual exercises between US and Philippine navies that ended on Friday said that encounters at sea between military vessels from different countries are a daily occurrence, but “those engagements are professional.”
Carl Thayer of the Australian defence force academy told the Guardian that the newly constructed strategically placed islands would give China more security leeway in the disputed South China Sea and make it difficult for US forces to assert sea control.
“China has excised the maritime heart out of Southeast Asia,” he said. “This is the new normal.”