Three Chinese officials, in the space of 24 hours, slammed US criticism of Beijing’s decision to set up a military garrison in the South China Sea, a rare gesture analysts said showcases Beijing’s determined stance on the territorial issue.
The US, trying to take advantage of the worsening South China Sea situation, may damage ties between the world’s two largest economies, experts said.
Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Kunsheng called in Robert Wang, the US embassy’s deputy chief of mission on Saturday, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.
US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said on Friday that China had raised tension in the region with the announcement last month that it had established a city and garrison in the South China Sea.
Zhang said that US State Department remarks “completely ignored the facts, deliberately confounded right and wrong, and sent a seriously wrong signal, which is not conducive to the efforts safeguarding the peace and stability of the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific region”.
“We urge the US to correct its mistake and respect China’s sovereignty.”
Also on Saturday, Qin Gang, spokesman for the ministry, accused the US of “selective blindness” as “certain countries” escalated disputes by opening oil and gas blocks, threatening Chinese fishermen, and illegally appropriating territory.
Tensions in the South China Sea have increased in past few months with Philippine naval action near China’s Huangyan Island.
The Philippines also recently offered oil and gas exploration contracts in Chinese territory in the South China Sea and Vietnam has passed a law falsely claiming Chinese islands.
“And why has the United States chosen to speak out all of a sudden to stir up trouble at a time when countries concerned in the region are stepping up dialogue and communication to resolve disputes and calm the situation?” Qin asked.
On Sunday, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Fu Ying said in an interview with Xinhua News Agency that China is ready to enter into discussions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea when conditions are ripe and that the issue should be addressed and solved only by parties directly concerned.
Sea: Conflict ‘in nobody’s interest’
Bonnie Glaser, China security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the US, said that the US State Department statement came after Washington became concerned about escalating tension over the past month.
The South China Sea has recently become a prominent topic in US-China discussions, and “it will undoubtedly continue to be on the agenda”.
Jia Xiudong, a senior researcher on international affairs at the China Institute of International Studies, said he believed the US statement was aimed at hyping the South China Sea issue to “catch fish in troubled waters”, an approach, he said, that Washington has followed in the past two years.
Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US government strategist, wrote in an essay that China might have set up the garrison as a way to counter the recent US military focus on Asia.
Despite the fierce dispute, the US does not want to see other nations further provoke China, Maurice Fermont, from the London School of Economics and Political Science, said at a seminar on the US role in East Asia at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing on Sunday.
“I think the US considers its relations with China as something incredibly important and an issue like this, which involves so many different countries, should be managed very carefully,” he said.
David Arase, professor of politics at the Center for Chinese and American Studies, jointly run by Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University, said the latest dispute between Beijing and Washington is a “troubling development”.
“Both countries should step back and think about their roles as responsible leaders in this region. If it ends with conflict, it will be in nobody’s interests.”