By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 31, 2010; A07
The Chinese military declared Friday that China had "indisputable sovereignty" over the South China Sea but insisted it would continue to allow others to freely navigate one of the busiest waterways in the world.
The statement by the People's Liberation Army seemed designed to reiterate China's claims to the entire 1.3 million-square-mile waterway while calming concerns in Washington and Asian capitals that its policy toward the region had suddenly become significantly more aggressive.
"China has indisputable sovereignty of the South Sea, and China has sufficient historical and legal backing" to support its claims, Senior Col. Geng Yansheng, a Ministry of Defense spokesman, told reporters Friday during a visit to an engineering unit on the outskirts of Beijing.
But he added, "We will, in accordance with the demands of international law, respect the freedom of the passage of ships or aircraft from relevant countries."
Geng's remarks were in reaction to a push last week by the United States, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries tochallenge China's claims to the whole sea.
In Hanoi on July 23, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a regional security forum that it was in the United States' "national interest" that freedom of navigation be maintained in the sea. Clinton also challenged China's claims to the whole sea, through which half of all shipped merchant tonnage passes each year.
U.S. and Asian officials have said that Vietnam and the United States spearheaded the push in part over concerns that China's navy has become increasingly aggressive in the sea, seizing fishing boats and arresting sailors from other countries. Some exchanges of gunfire have also occurred in recent months, Asian officials said.
China's claims to the South China Sea stretch back at least to the 1930s, when official maps from China contained the whole sea as Chinese territory. China's historians have also pointed to ancient shards of pottery on atolls as proof that the sea has historically belonged to China.
The U.S. push on the issue seems to have taken Chinese leaders by surprise although U.S. officials have been speaking with China about the problem for months. Dai Bingguo, China's state councilor in charge of foreign policy, told Clinton in May during a tense exchange on the region that China viewed its claims to the sea as a "core national interest."
China's embassy in Washington also asked the State Department not to raise the subject in the run-up to the meeting in Hanoi and apparently thought Washington would follow its wishes, Chinese sources said.