BEIJING // China warned its rivals not to turn the South China Sea into a “cradle of war” on Wednesday, threatening an air defence 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. The ruling was also a victory for other claimants in their decades-long disputes with China over the resource-rich waters.
While reacting furiously to Tuesday’s decision, China also extended an olive branch to the new Philippine government, saying the South-east Asian nation would benefit from cooperating with Beijing.
China insisted 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 said, describing the ruling as waste paper.
“China’s aim is to turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.”
Mr Liu said China also had “the right” to establish an air defence identification zone 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.”
While blaming the previous Philippine government for complicating the dispute by seeking arbitration, Mr Liu also sought to strike a conciliatory note with the South East Asian nation’s new leadership. He said China remains committed to negotiations with the Philippines, noting new Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s positive remarks on the issue.
“After the storm of this arbitration has passed, and the sky has cleared, we hope this day [of negotiations] will come quickly, but whether it can come, we still have to wait,” Mr Liu said, adding that China believed that cooperation would also bring Filipinos “tangible benefits”.
He said, however, that China hoped the new government would not use the arbitration results – which China has declared null and void – as a basis for negotiations. Although the decision is seen as a major legal declaration regarding one of the world’s most contested regions, its impact is uncertain given the tribunal has no power of enforcement.
While the findings cannot reverse China’s actions, they still constitute a rebuke, carrying with it the force of the international community’s opinion. It also gives heart to small countries in Asia that have helplessly chafed at China’s expansionism, backed by its military and economic power.
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, 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.
* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press