RANCHO MIRAGE, California: US President Barack Obama has criticised China for strongman tactics in the South China Sea, against a backdrop of rising tensions in disputed waters.
“We think China is resorting to the old style of might makes right, as opposed to working through international law and international norms to establish claims, and to resolve disputes,” he said in an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia recorded on Tuesday (Feb 16).
The President’s comments were made prior to news of an apparent deployment of surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the Paracel Islands chain, also called the Xisha Island chain by China.
Beijing has so far failed to explicitly confirm or deny the alleged deployment of missiles in the South China Sea, but the Global Times, which has close ties with the ruling Communist Party, acknowledged “weapons” on the island. China’s Ministry of National Defense has said the islands are the country’s “inherent territory” and that it has legitimate rights to deploy defence facilities to safeguard its territorial sovereignty.
Mr Obama said there “remains significant potential for conflict” between the claimants in the South China Sea, but when asked if the US would go to war with China over the territorial disputes, he declined to hypothesize about that.
“The fact is that my administration had maintained a very constructive relationship with the Chinese government. We believe very much in a peaceful, rising China. We think we have much more to fear from a weak, chaotic China, than a China that continues to progress and fulfill the aspirations of its people,“ Mr Obama said.
He noted that when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping in the White House Rose Garden last September, he was given assurance that China did not want to militarise areas of dispute in the South China Sea.
“ASEAN has affirmed that that should be the case. So, we will continue to test whether China’s sincere with respect to these efforts,” he said.
Mr Obama was speaking on the sidelines of the US-ASEAN Leaders Summit in Sunnylands, California, the first such meeting held on American soil. Some analysts had expected the US to press the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to make a unified statement about the South China Sea dispute, but the summit statement failed to mention China by name, instead making a broad comment urging a peaceful resolution of disputes. ASEAN members have long urged Beijing to abide by a proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has also brought a case against China in the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and the tribunal is expected to pass a judgement later this year. China though has so far rejected the Court’s jurisdiction.
Watch the full interview exclusively on Channel NewsAsia on Feb 22, 8pm (SG/HK) with an encore Feb 23, 6pm and Feb 24, 1pm.