WASHINGTON: The US State Department said it would question the Chinese government about reports Hainan will allow police from the start of 2013 to board foreign vessels that enter disputed areas in the South China Sea “to get a better understanding of what they intend.”
“So until we have a chance to do that, I think we’ll withhold comment given that it’s just press reporting at this stage,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
China said earlier that it attached great importance to freedom of navigation in the disputed waters.
“All countries have freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in accordance with international law,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters.
“China attaches great importance to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. At present there are no problems in this regard,” Hong said, adding that Beijing hoped to resolve tensions through talks.
Hainan is the province responsible for administering resource-rich islets and atolls in the South China Sea that Beijing claims, putting it on a collision course with the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries who also claim territorial sovereignty over overlapping parts of the sea.
Meanwhile, Nuland said the US has expressed on two occasions its concern to China over a controversial map embossed on all newly issued Chinese passports showing the entire South China Sea and other disputed regions as sovereign Chinese territory.
This was done at a meeting on Wednesday at the State Department with Chinese embassy officials at the Deputy Assistant Secretary level, Nuland said.
Another meeting was held on Thursday with Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell.
“We’re obviously joining the chorus of countries who are urging the Chinese to reconsider the political signal that this (map) appears to send,” she said.
Nuland said US concerns were not assuaged by the explanations of the embassy officials.
The conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, on the other hand, opposed on Thursday China being invited to participate in RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) naval exercises.
It said China’s participation would be deeply problematic as the purpose of the exercise held every two years and hosted by the commander of the US Pacific Fleet is to facilitate interoperability and familiarity among friends and allied countries.
“For the US, there is a real question about whether we want to display our capacities and that of our allies and partners in front of members of the Chinese navy, at least some of whom, almost certainly, will be seconded from Chinese intelligence,” the think tank said in an article by Dean Cheng and Derek Sissors.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta extended the invitation for China to participate in RIMPAC 2014 during a visit to Beijing in September.
This year’s RIMPAC exercise, the 23rd in the series, was held in August around Hawaii and involved 22 nations including the Philippines, more than 40 ships and submarines, and more than 200 aircraft, the Defence Department said.
It said the exercise, designed to foster and sustain cooperative relationships critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world’s oceans, was attended by more than 25,000 personnel from Australia, Britain, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, Tonga and the United States.
The Philippine Star