HONG KONG— China says that remarks made earlier this week by a U.S. top official about its maritime disputes are groundless and irresponsible. East Asia envoy Daniel Russel had raised concerns about China's assertive stance with its neighbors and questioned the legality of China's territorial claims.
China’s claims to maritime territory in the East and South China Seas have raised tensions with its neighbors, in particular Japan and the Philippines.
This week U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Daniel Russel, told a Congressional hearing in Washington that China is increasingly assertive in trying to gain control over oceans in the region.
On Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Russel's remarks were unfounded.
He says it is extremely irresponsible of the relevant U.S. official to make groundless accusations against China based on rumors and without checking the facts.
Russel also said that China's claims in the South China Sea are not complying with international law. He said that although the United States does not take sides in territorial disputes, Beijing should clarify its claims.
Sam Bateman, a maritime security analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore says Russel's statements were unnecessarily provocative.
“The only way you can read them is that the U.S. is taking a position on the claims. China's claims are not very good ipso facto the claims by other countries are better,” he said.
China claims sovereignty over islands and waters in the South China Sea delineated by the so-called 'nine dash line,' a demarcation that Beijing submitted to the United Nations in 2009. The area is rich in oil and natural gas, and covers territory also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
Russel said that China falls short on international law because its claims are not determined on land features, such as a nation's coastline or its islands.
Bateman says Russel's remark show a lack of understanding of what the "nine dash line" is.
“It's loose geographical shorthand to say we claim islands and features, it is not actually questioning other countries who have establish exclusive economic zones inside the nine dash line, or indeed have maritime boundaries with their neighbor.”
China's claims refer to historical fishing routes that Beijing says date back to the fifteen century. Bateman says there is some legal merit to the argument.
“Those sort of traditional fishing rights do have some sort of basis in international law, although China cannot really just assert them without some discussion with the countries concerned,” he said.
Tensions have flared up in the East and South China sea after territorial rows led to occasional spats between fishing and exploration boats.
China has asserted its sovereignty by creating new restrictions on fishing routes in the South China Sea as well as declaring an air defense identification zone over islands disputed with Japan.
This week, the Philippines president compared giving in to China’s claims in the South China Sea, to territorial concessions to Nazi Germany before the start of World War 2. China’s state news agency called the comments a disgrace.
On Wednesday Russel warned of a “serious downturn” in China-Japan relations, and urged the two countries to use diplomatic means to manage their problems.
The Obama administration has tried to refocus its foreign policy on Asia, saying America needs to strengthen its influence in the Asia Pacific region.
But in China, Obama's efforts are viewed as a strategy of containment, especially when they touch on territorial disputes that China prefers to discuss bilaterally.