BEIJING – Upping the ante in the feud over who is responsible for rising tensions in the South China Sea, China on Wednesday said repeated U.S. Navy patrols in the area are forcing it to boost the defense capabilities of the islands it controls and may require it to launch more air and sea patrols.
In a strongly worded statement, the Defense Ministry said it deployed two navy fighter jets, one early warning aircraft and three ships to track and warn-off the destroyer USS William P. Lawrence as it passed nearby Fiery Cross Reef on Tuesday.
“The provocative actions by American military ships and planes lay bare the U.S. designs to seek gain by creating chaos in the region and again testify to the total correctness and utter necessity of China’s construction of defensive facilities on relevant islands,” the ministry said.
“China will increase the scope of sea and air patrols based on need, boost all categories of military capacity building, resolutely defend national sovereignty and security, and resolutely safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea,” the statement said.
The U.S. destroyer’s sail-by was the latest action by the U.S. Navy to reinforce its position that China’s new man-made features in the strategically vital water body do not enjoy the legal rights of natural islands. Washington has said the Navy will sail and fly wherever permitted by international law and maintains there can be no limits on freedom of navigation as according to established practice.
The William P. Lawrence’s sail-by took it within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of Fiery Cross Reef, the limit of what international law regards as an island’s territorial sea. The reef is now an island with an airstrip, harbor and burgeoning above-ground infrastructure.
China has added more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of land to its South China Sea island holdings by expanding existing islands or creating new ones by piling sand atop coral reefs.
The addition of airstrips and military infrastructure has Washington and others worried that China is attempting to assert total dominance over the region’s waters and airspace that are claimed in whole or in part by five other governments.
China rejects accusations that it is responsible for raising tensions, saying actions by the U.S. Navy and the encouragement Washington offers to other claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines are increasing the chances of conflict.
An estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes annually through the South China Sea, which is home to rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of undersea oil and gas deposits.
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