White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s comments Monday on the South China Sea prompted a response from Beijing, again warning the U.S. not to meddle in the overlapping territorial disputes in the region.
China has “indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha [Spratlty] Islands and the adjacent waters,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday.
“The United States is not a party to the South China Sea disputes. We urge the U.S. side to respect the facts and be prudent in words and actions to avoid causing disruptions to peace and stability of the South China Sea.”
Over the last several years, China has mounted a campaign to create artificial islands to host airfields and other installations near regional rivals in support of expansive territorial claims. Recently, the Chinese have armed the facilities with defensive weapons that have further inflamed regional tensions.
On Monday, Spicer said the U.S. would protect American interests in the region but raised questions as to the status of islands in the South China Sea.
“I think the U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there. So it’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and are not part of China proper then yeah we’re going to make sure we defend international territories from being taken over by one country,” he said on Monday.
Spicer’s comments are more moderate than those of Trump secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, who told the Senate on Jan. 11 the U.S. could use military power to block Chinese access to the string of artificial islands Beijing has built in the Spratlys off of the Philippines.
While both sets of remarks have caused confusion in the Western Pacific, the Trump view of the South China Sea won’t be far off from the Obama administration, James Kraska, a professor of international law, oceans law and policy at the U.S. Naval War College’s Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, told USNI News.
The U.S. will continue to recognize the July ruling of the international tribunal that determined the claims China made in the South China Sea were largely void.
“My view is that they mean to say that the United States is not going to acquiesce to maritime zones created by artificial islands. In this respect, they are continuing the previous administration’s policy of viewing the arbitration as ‘final and binding’ on the parties, as well as a guide for U.S. policy,” he said.
”The bottom line is that the South China Sea is a vast open waterway. I understand the U.S. administration as saying that no matter what China had done or will do to the features therein, that freedom of navigation and overflight are legally unaffected. I believe that this position is also legally correct.”
Since 2015, the U.S. has challenged China’s extensive claims in the region via a campaign of freedom of navigation operations – the most recent in October.
From the Pentagon’s perspective, the U.S. stance to the South China Sea has remained unchanged.
“The United States does not take a position on the question of territorial sovereignty, but we do take a position on whether maritime claims accord with the international law of the sea, as well as the manner in which countries pursue such claims,” a Defense Department spokesman told USNI News on Monday.
“The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea wherever international law allows, in the same way that we operate everywhere else around the world. This will not change.”