Esper urges ‘very public posture’ on Chinese sea claims

JIM GOMEZ

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The U.S. defense chief on Tuesday urged governments affected by China’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea “to take a very public posture” and assert their sovereign rights, adding that acting collectively is the best way to send a message “to get China on the right path.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper raised concerns over China’s increasingly assertive actions in the disputed waters in a news conference after meeting his Philippine counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, in Manila, his latest stop in an Asian tour.

The disputes have long been a major point of contention between Washington and Beijing, whose vast territorial claims in the strategic waterway overlap with five other governments, including the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally.

Washington lays no claims to the busy waters but has declared that freedom of navigation and overflight and the peaceful resolution of the disputes are in the U.S. national interest. China has repeatedly warned the U.S. to stay out of what it calls a purely Asian dispute.

In an Asian defense meeting that he attended in Thailand, Esper said most participants were “very concerned about China’s excessive claims” and its lack of compliance with international laws and norms. The meetings were led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Four members of the 10-nation bloc have been embroiled in the territorial rifts along with China and Taiwan.

Tensions have escalated in recent years after China built missile-protected islands on seven disputed reefs, three of which have military-grade runways. There have been reports that China has used one of its new island bases to resupply ships that have been accused by rival claimants like Vietnam and Malaysia of encroaching into their waters in recent months.

"I think it's incumbent upon all of us to take a very public posture and to assert our sovereign rights and to emphasize the importance of law," Esper told reporters in Manila.

U.S. forces have conducted more freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in the past year than in previous years to highlight the importance of adherence to international law, Esper said, referring to sail-bys by U.S. Navy ships close to China-claimed islands that have infuriated Beijing.

“The clear signal we’re trying to send is not that we oppose China per se but that we all stand for international rules, international laws,” he said. “We think China should abide by them as well and that acting collectively is the best way to send that message and to get China on the right path.”

In Bangkok, Esper briefly met his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, on Monday on the sidelines of the Asian defense meeting. A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Defense, Col. Wu Qian, told reporters in Bangkok that the South China Sea disputes were among numerous issues discussed by the two.

Wu said Esper and Wei had a “very positive and constructive” meeting and “agreed in many areas.” But he was clear that Beijing is irritated at the U.S. Navy’s presence in the South China Sea. Wei reaffirmed China’s commitment to safeguarding its “territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea, Wu said.

“The Chinese side also urges the U.S. side to stop flexing muscles in the South China Sea and do not provoke and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” Wu said through a Chinese interpreter.

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Associated Press writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.