BEIJING—China warned its rivals Wednesday against turning the South China Sea into a “cradle of war” and threatened to establish an air defense zone there, after its claims to the strategically vital waters were declared invalid.
The surprisingly strong and sweeping ruling by a UN-backed tribunal in The Hague provided powerful diplomatic ammunition to the Philippines, which filed the challenge, and other claimants in their decades-long disputes with China over the resource-rich waters.
China reacted furiously to Tuesday’s decision, insisting on its historical rights over the sea while launching a volley of thinly veiled warnings to the United States and other critical nations.
“Do not turn the South China Sea into a cradle of war,” Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters in Beijing, as he described the ruling as waste paper.
“China’s aim is to turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.”
Liu said China also had “the right” to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the sea, which would give the Chinese military authority over foreign aircraft.
A similar zone set up in 2013 in the East China Sea riled Japan, the United States and its allies.
“Whether we need to set up one in the South China Sea depends on the level of threat we receive,” he said.
“We hope other countries will not take the chance to blackmail China.”
The Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, was even more blunt over the ramifications of the verdict.
“It will certainly intensify conflicts and even confrontation,” Cui said in Washington on Tuesday.
China justifies its sovereignty claims by saying it was the first to have discovered, named and exploited the sea, and outlines its claims for most of the waterway using a vague map made up of nine dashes that emerged in the 1940s.
Those claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Manila, under previous President Benigno Aquino III, launched the legal case in 2013 after China took control of Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and far away from the nearest major Chinese landmass.China has also in recent years built giant artificial islands capable of hosting military installations and airstrips in the Spratlys archipelago, one of the biggest groups of islands in the sea.
Aside from stating that China’s historical rights were without “legal basis,” the tribunal ruled that its artificial island building and the blocking of Filipino fishermen at Scarborough Shoal were unlawful.
However, the Philippines, under new President Rodrigo Duterte, declined to celebrate the verdict, saying on Tuesday only that it welcomed the ruling while calling for sobriety and restraint.
Duterte has repeatedly said he wants to improve relations with China, which plummeted under Aquino because of the dispute, and that he would seek Chinese investment for major infrastructure projects such as a railway for the impoverished southern Philippines.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said last week that the Philippines would seek to use the verdict as the basis for direct talks with China aimed at achieving a long-awaited code of conduct among rival claimants for the sea.
On Wednesday, Yasay urged members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to come up with a unified statement on the South China Sea, following the ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal.
China faced immediate pressure from Western powers, which insist they have legitimate interests in the dispute because of the need to maintain “freedom of navigation” in waters that hosts more than $5 trillion in shipping trade annually.
The United States emphasized on Tuesday that China, as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, should accept the verdict.
“As provided in the convention, the tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding on both China and the Philippines,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington.
Kirby called on all sides “to avoid provocative statements or actions.”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop warned China on Wednesday there would be “strong reputational costs” for ignoring the ruling, as she called for an end to Chinese island building.
“China seeks to be a regional and global leader and requires friendly relations with its neighbors. That’s crucial to its rise,” Bishop told national broadcaster ABC.
Military tensions in the sea had already spiked in the lead-up to the verdict.
China launched naval drills in the northern areas, while the US Pacific Command said it had deployed an aircraft carrier for flights to support “security” in the sea.
Taiwan, which was another loser in the verdict as its claims are very similar to those of China, sent a warship to the sea on Wednesday to protect its claims.
Its representative office in Manila issued a statement saying that the tribunal’s decision was “completely unacceptable.”
President Tsai Ing-wen rallied troops on the deck of the frigate, saying Taiwanese were determined to “defend their country’s rights,” before the warship headed for Taiwan-controlled Taiping island in the Spratly island chain from the southern city of Kaohsiung.
China used deadly force to seize control of the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam in 1974, and Johnson Reef from a united Vietnam in 1988.
On Wednesday, Yasay brushed aside criticism of the administration’s cautious remarks about the decision.
“We have to be circumspect and restrain in our reactions. We cannot gloat about our triumph,” he said. “We’re happy about it. And we could not be more pleased [with] the decision of the arbitral tribunal. [But we] always maintain that we have to be magnanimous in victory.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the US has reassured the Philippines of its “iron-clad” support following the tribunal’s verdict.
He emphasized, however, that Manila never solicited the opinion or advice of Washington on what to do next.
“We will not cosult them… Our actions will be guided by what is good for the country,” he said.
Lorenzana said his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, called him briefly Sunday afternoon, three days before the verdict, to reassure Manila of Washignton’s solid support. He said Carter was with President Barrack Obama in London when they talked over the phone.
Western Command commander Rear Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado said they were awaiting guidance from the national government on what to do about the artificial islands created by the Chinese inside the Kalayaan Island Group in Palawan.
“There has no guidance to change whatever we have been doing. The bottom line right now is we are just waiting for policies to be laid down by the national government,” Mercado said.
In Washington, Beijing’s ambassador to the United States said the tribunal’s decision would “certainly undermine or weaken the motivation of states to engage in negotiations and consultations for solving their dispute.”
“It will certainly intensify conflicts and even confrontation,” said Ambassador Cui Tiankai, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In the end, it will undermine the authority and effectiveness of international law.”
The envoy also warned that the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling “will probably open the door of abusing arbitration procedures.”
The envoy also blamed Washington’s pivot to Asia under President Barack Obama for increased tensions.
“Tensions started to rise five to six years ago, about the same time we began to hear from the so-called pivoting to Asia,” Cui said. “Disputes intensified, relations strained, confidence weakened.”
The Australian government said China must accept the verdict and needs to halt its artificial island building in the disputed waters.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Beijing risked hurting its reputation if it ignored the ruling by the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration, on a case brought by Manila, which said China had no title to the waterway.
“We call on both the Philippines and China to respect the ruling, to abide by it. It is final and legally binding on both of them,” Bishop told national broadcaster ABC.
“This treaty, the Law of the Sea, codifies pre-existing international custom. It’s a foundation to maritime trade and commerce globally, and so to ignore it would be a serious international transgression,” Bishop added.
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