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South China Sea: ‘external forces’ meddling in disputes, Chinese official says

south china sea
The guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay transits the South China Sea on April 2. Photo: US Navy

Interference by external powers is compounding challenges in the South China Sea, a senior Chinese foreign ministry official told an international forum on Thursday.

Without naming those powers, Tan Qingsheng, from the ministry’s boundary and ocean affairs department, said some external forces were provoking division among claimants of the waters for their own geopolitical motives.

“Achieving sustainable development in the South China Sea still faces many difficulties and challenges. The most prominent of these is that some foreign powers, out of their own geopolitical interests, have stepped up manipulation and involvement in disputes in the South China Sea,” Tan said in a panel discussion on the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia on the southern island province of Hainan.

“These foreign powers aggressively promoted military deployment and operations in the South China Sea, abused international law, disrupted negotiations on the code of conduct, and attempted to sow discord among regional countries,” he said, according to a transcript of Tan’s remarks published by China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

“Countries in the region can see the dangers clearly”.

China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims over the resource-rich and strategically important waterway.

China has accused the United States – which is not a claimant – of violating its sovereignty by deploying military vessels and aircraft to the disputed waters for freedom of navigation operations.

Just last month, Beijing described as provocation a flight near the Chinese-held Spratly Island chain by US Indo-Pacific Commander John Aquilino, who said China had militarised at least three of the islands.

China has also attacked US attempts to step up military engagement with the region through the Quad and its Indo-Pacific strategy, urging other countries in the region not to take sides.

“Managing differences is an important guarantee for the sustainable development of the South China Sea,” Tan said.

“All parties should properly handle maritime differences … avoid taking unilateral actions that may escalate disputes … and jointly maintain peace and tranquillity at sea.”

Tan said China was still trying to advance talks on a code of conduct for the disputed waters, efforts that have been delayed by disagreement on the code’s scope and range, as well as the US-China rivalry.

Talks started in 2017 to come up with a code to manage tensions in the South China Sea, a resource-rich and strategically important waterway, but progress has stalled over the past two years, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

China is also stepping up engagement with other countries in the region. In a phone call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte two weeks ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping said regional security could not be achieved through military alliances and that China was willing to boost investment in the Southeast Asian nation.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son this week that the war in Ukraine served as a reminder to Asian countries that indulging in group confrontation led to “endless risks”.