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China tries to keep calm as US steps up drills, Asia visits

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
The amphibious assault ship USS Boxer transits the East Sea during Exercise Ssang Yong on March 8, 2016. (Photo by Reuters)

China has stressed its “indisputable” sovereignty over a series of islands in the South China Sea amid drills by the US and several other allies in an unprecedented show of force against Beijing.

"China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters," China's Defense Ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei told a monthly press conference in the capital on Thursday.

"China is committed to resolving relevant disputes through negotiations and consultations with the countries directly concerned on the basis of respecting historical facts and international law," Tan added.

The Chinese official made the comments in response to provocative speeches that US Vice President Kamala Harris delivered in visits to Singapore and Vietnam earlier in the week, during which she accused Beijing of “coercion and bullying” in maritime issues related to the South China Sea.

Harris told a news conference in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, that the US and its partners "need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims."

She called on the Vietnamese government to jointly oppose China and stressed the US bid to maintain "strong presence in the South China Sea."

"Beijing's actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations. The United States stands with our allies and partners in the face of these threats," she added.

US 'the direct driver of tensions' in South China Sea

The Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson accused the US of being the "direct driver of tensions" in the South China Sea.

"As an extra-regional country, the United States ignores international law and the basic norms of international relations, often showing off its military force in the South China Sea under the guise of 'freedom of navigation' to provoke, disrupt and continually undermine the efforts of regional countries to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea," Tan said.

"We urge the United States to truly respect China's core interests and major concerns," he added, underlining that China's resolve to defend its territory was "rock solid."

Harris’s allegations drew widespread condemnation from the Chinese media, with the state-run newspaper China Daily saying the American vise president had “willfully ignored her own hypocrisy” in attempting to rally countries in the region against China.

The Global Times newspaper also said the US was “dreaming” to incite Vietnam to confront China.

“For Washington, it couldn’t be better if a new war between Beijing and Hanoi breaks out,” the tabloid, published by the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, said in an editorial.

China Army holds exercises  

As Harris visited Singapore and Vietnam, China sent two naval flotillas on far sea drills amid two exercises being held by maritime forces from the US, UK, Australia, Japan and India near the contested islands.

Maritime forces from Australia, Japan, India and the US began the Malabar 2021 exercise in the Philippine Sea on Thursday, with the purported goal of strengthening skills in combined maritime operations, anti-submarine warfare operations, air warfare operations, live-fire gunnery events, replenishments-at-sea, cross-deck flight operations, and maritime interdiction operations.

Western media reports said the long-anticipated annual exercise is aimed at "keeping China in check."

Separately, warships of Japan and the US teamed up with the UK aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in waters south of Japan's Okinawa, and the goal was reported to be containing China.

Facing these provocations, the Chinese army held a series of far sea exercises with the use of world-class vessels, saying show China is fully capable of safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The South China Sea is a gateway to major sea routes, through which about 3.4 trillion dollars’ worth of trade passes each year. China claims sovereignty over much of the strategic waterway and has since 2014 built artificial islands on reefs and installed military bases on them.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei have overlapping claims with China to parts of the sea.

The United States, which sides with Beijing’s rival claimants in the maritime dispute, routinely sends warships and warplanes to the South China Sea to assert what it calls its right to freedom of navigation, ratcheting up tensions among the regional countries.

China has constantly warned the US against its military activities in the sea, saying that potential close military encounters between the air and naval forces of the two countries in the region could trigger accidents.

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