In first official comments, Beijing voices displeasure with U.S. carrier patrols in South China Sea

The Japan Times– China voiced its opposition Tuesday to freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea by foreign countries that it says threaten its sovereignty — the first official comments by Beijing since a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike group began patrols in the strategic waterway.

“China always respects the freedom of navigation and overflight that countries enjoy in the South China Sea under international law. But we oppose relevant countries threatening and undermining the sovereignty and security of coastal states under the pretext of such freedom,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said told a news briefing accoring to the ministry’s website. “We hope that relevant countries can do more for regional peace and stability.”

The U.S. Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 1, which includes the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, began what the navy called “routine operations” in the South China Sea on Saturday.

Beijing had warned Washington last week not to challenge its sovereignty in the waters amid reports that the U.S. Navy was gearing up to sail more warships near China’s man-made islands there.

China claims most of the waterway, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.

It has built seven man-made islets in the hotly contested Spratly chain, with some boasting military-grade airfields and anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to “militarize” the islands.

The carrier strike group has not referred to its operations in the South China Sea as “freedom of navigation” patrols. Last year, U.S. warships conducted several of the patrols to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to access in the waters and also to challenge its “excessive maritime claims” there. Recent media reports have said that the U.S. Navy may be looking to conduct a fresh operation soon.

Experts say the freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, in the South China are unlikely to be rolled back under new U.S. President Donald Trump.

“The FONOPS were set out in the Obama administration,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS. “Of course the Trump team had to approve them to go ahead once it got in office, but I don’t see a disconnect in policy between the two administrations on this issue.”

Beijing, on the other hand, has in recent comments touted its efforts to work with other nations and multilateral groupings, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, on South China Sea issue.

“Thanks to the concerted efforts by China and ASEAN countries, the situation in the South China Sea is easing up toward stability and moving in a positive direction,” Geng said Tuesday. “We have said many times that we hope relevant countries, especially nonregional countries, can respect the efforts made by China and ASEAN countries, preserve and consolidate the current sound momentum, and contribute more to peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Chinese state-run media, meanwhile, has taken a more direct approach in criticizing the Vinson-led operations, with an op-ed in the China Daily newspaper Monday saying the U.S. “maneuvers only raise tensions in the waters.”