China is defending the construction of surface-to-air missile sites in the South China Sea, a move opposed by the U.S. but one that could help consolidate its hold over one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.
“China has the right to deploy necessary defensive facilities on its territory in accordance with security requirement,” Colonel Ren Guoqiang, spokesman for the regime’s Ministry of National Defense, said Thursday. “It is the legitimate right of a sovereign state.”
China has claimed sovereignty over approximately 90 percent of the South China Sea, a subject of hot dispute given that the waters flow between several neighboring countries carrying “half the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage,” according to the National Interest. The increased military capabilities could give China an edge when negotiating with its smaller neighbors, even as they try to cut the United States out of the talks.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over relevant islands and reefs in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters,” Ren said.
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The surface-to-air missile sites, which were built on artificial islands constructed by the Chinese, angered U.S. policymakers when they were revealed this week.
“Building two dozen structures designed to house surface-to-air missiles clearly violates China’s previous promises not to militarize this vital region, where $5.3 trillion of trade — $1.2 trillion of it from the U.S. — passes each year,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said this week. “The U.S. military should continue to fly, sail and operate in the South China Sea, and everywhere else international law allows. China’s attempts to restrict access to this critical region should not be tolerated by the U.S. or our allies.”
Chinese state-run media published a column deriding “foreign media’s hype of China’s militarization in the South China Sea” on Thursday. “It is rooted in self-interest and ulterior motives,” the Xinhua commentary said.
The United States doesn’t have a direct claim in the South China Sea, but has supported the Philippines — a former U.S. colony — in the controversy and defended the principle of freedom of navigation. To that end, an American aircraft carrier group sailed through the disputed waters earlier this week.
“We are not going to challenge China’s possession of any of these land features in my judgment,” former assistant secretary of defense Chas Freeman told Reuters. “If that’s going to happen, it’s going to be done by the Vietnamese, or … the Filipinos … or the Malaysians, who are the three counter-claimants of note.”
But China is trying to cut the U.S. out of the talks by building a stronger relationship with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte while negotiating with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“The probability of agreement on a framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by mid-year is a positive sign,” the Xinhua editorial said. “It means that the two sides are back on track over the issue, sending out a signal to outside meddlers that they can stop making waves.”