China on Sunday hit out at US “provocations” and said it does not fear “trouble” over its territorial disputes with neighbours in the South China Sea.
“The South China Sea issue has become overheated because of the provocations of certain countries for their own selfish interests,” Admiral Sun Jianguo told a security summit in Singapore.
Sun spoke one day after US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned that Chinese construction on a South China Sea islet claimed by the Philippines would prompt unspecified “actions” by the United States and other nations.
On a visit to Mongolia Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry also warned Beijing against setting up an air defence identification zone over the disputed waters, saying it would be a “provocative and destabilising act”.
Rhetoric has escalated ahead of a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a case brought by the Philippines, a longtime US ally and former colony, against China, which has shunned the proceedings and says it will not recognise any ruling.
The Chinese admiral, in a clear reference to Washington, said “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea were a display of “military muscles” and that China was being forced to “accept and honour” the tribunal’s ruling.
“China firmly opposes such behaviour. We do not make trouble but we have no fear of trouble,” Sun, the head of the Chinese delegation to the Singapore forum known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, said in prepared remarks.
In an open forum, he addressed Pentagon chief Carter’s statement on Saturday that Beijing risks building a “Great Wall of self-isolation” with its military expansion in the contested waters.
“We were not isolated in the past. We’re not isolated, and we will not be isolated in the future. Actually I am worried some people and countries are still looking at China with a Cold War mentality and prejudice,” the Chinese admiral said in response questions from other delegates.
“They may build a wall in their mind and end up isolating themselves,” he said.
In his speech, Sun said “any countries not directly concerned are not allowed to sabotage our path of peace for selfish gains.”
– Competing claims –
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post has reported that China plans to establish an outpost on Scarborough Shoal, located 230 kilometres (140 miles) off the Philippines, which considers it part of its exclusive economic zone.
Beijing claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea and has developed contested reefs into artificial islands, some topped with airstrips.
Manila says China took effective control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, stationing patrol vessels and shooing away Filipino fishermen, after a two-month stand-off with the Philippine Navy.
Carter declined to elaborate when pressed on Saturday over what “actions” Washington might take.
But he also proposed stronger bilateral security cooperation with China to reduce the risks of a mishap.
Admiral Sun on Sunday repeated China’s pledges to seek a peaceful solution.
Apart from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have competing claims in the sea, which encompasses vital global shipping routes and is believed to have significant oil and gas deposits.
Beijing’s territorial claims, based on controversial historical records, have also pitted it against the United States, which has conducted patrols near Chinese-held islands to press for freedom of navigation.
Pentagon officials say two Chinese fighters last month conducted an “unsafe” intercept of a US spy plane in international air space over the South China Sea.