Xi to Obama: South China Sea isles ours

Jose Katigbak - The Philippine Star

WASHINGTON – Islands in the South China Sea have been Chinese territory “since ancient times,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told US President Barack Obama on Friday during their meeting after the latter voiced concern over massive land reclamation and militarization in disputed waters.

“We have the right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty and lawful legitimate maritime rights and interests,” Xi said.

“Relevant construction activity that China is undertaking in the Nansha Islands does not target or impact any country and there is no intention to militarize,” Xi said, using the Chinese name for the disputed Spratly archipelago.

Xi also reiterated that China is committed to freedom of navigation in the sea and to resolving disputes through dialogue. He said Beijing and Washington had a shared interest in this regard.

Their White House meeting touched on a wide range of issues including human rights, climate change and cyber espionage.

“I conveyed to President Xi our significant concerns over land reclamation, construction and the militarization of disputed areas, which makes it harder for countries in the region to resolve disagreements peacefully,” Obama said at a joint press conference.

He spoke with Xi at his side during their joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden. The Chinese leader is on his first state visit to the US.

“I encouraged a resolution between claimants in these areas. We are not a claimant, we just want to make sure that the rules of the road are upheld,” Obama said.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea but neighbors Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have rival claims.

But Xi stressed China’s commitment to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.

“We’re committed to respecting and upholding the freedom of navigation and overflight that countries enjoy according to international law,” Xi said.

Obama said China’s dispute with neighboring countries over ownership of islands, shoals, reefs and outcrops should be resolved peacefully.

He also reiterated the right of all countries to freedom of navigation and overflight and to unimpeded commerce.

“The United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows,” Obama said.

The US position is that land reclamation and construction of artificial islands destabilize the region and should stop.

Before their talks, Obama – in an official welcome ceremony – said the US welcomes the rise of a China that is stable, prosperous and peaceful.

“I believe that our two great nations, if we work together, have an unmatched ability to shape the course of the century ahead,” he said.

Xi said he came to the US to promote peace and advance cooperation and both sides should be broad-minded about their differences and disagreements.

A White House fact sheet on areas where China and the United States are working together did not mention the South China Sea.

Admiral Harry Harris, commander of US forces in the Pacific, told the Aspen Security Forum in July that China was building hangers on one of the reefs – Kagitingan or Fiery Cross – that appeared to be for tactical fighter aircraft.

Washington analysts and US officials say the militarization of the islands has already begun and the only question is how much military hardware China will install.

US experts say satellite photos from early this month also show China was carrying out dredging work around the artificial islands, a month after saying it had stopped.

Harris said last week that China’s runway building and further militarization of the artificial islands was of “great concern” and posed a threat to all countries in the region.

Jane’s Defense Weekly published new satellite images of Kagitingan taken on Sept. 20 that it said showed China had completed the runway on the reef and was moving closer to making it operational.

Jane’s said completion of the runway could allow China to accelerate construction of infrastructure and to start air patrols over the disputed islands.

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