WASHINGTON — China's blocking of supplies to a Philippine outpost in the South China Sea is "provocative" and raises tensions, the United States said Wednesday, in its latest criticism of China's assertive conduct in disputed seas of East Asia.
The Philippines, a U.S. ally, protested to China Tuesday its prevention of two Filipino vessels from taking supplies to troops on a decrepit military hospital ship that ran aground 15 years ago on the shallow coral outcrop of the Second Thomas Shoal. The rusty ship has since become the symbol of Philippine sovereignty over the area.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was troubled by the reported action by China's coastguard. She said the Philippines has maintained a presence at the shoal since 1999, and other South China Sea claimant nations regularly resupply and repair their outposts without interference.
"This is a provocative move that raises tensions. Pending resolution of competing claims in the South China Sea, there should be no interference with the efforts of claimants to maintain the status quo," Psaki said in a statement.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, resource-rich waters where Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to islands, islets and reefs. The Philippines in late January protested a Chinese water cannon attack on Filipino fisherman near another disputed shoal.
China's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday rejected the latest Philippine protest, saying it has "indisputable sovereignty" over the Second Thomas Shoal and the nearby Spratly islands. The shoal lies about 120 miles from the Philippines' southern island of Palawan, and about 700 miles from southern China.
Washington has become more critical of China's assertive actions, and last month asked China to clarify its South China Sea claims. The U.S. has no territorial claim itself in the disputed waters, but says it has a national interest in a peaceful resolution and freedom of navigation in busy sea lanes crucial for world trade. The U.S. has also rejected China's recent declaration of an air defense information zone over the East China Sea, above disputed islands controlled by another U.S. ally, Japan.
"Freedom of navigation and overflight is a linchpin of security in the Pacific. Safe and unimpeded lawful commerce, freedom of navigation, stability, and respect for international law must be maintained," Psaki said.
While the firm U.S. response is likely to be welcomed by some of China's neighbors which are intimidated by the rising Asian power's growing military power, it could hinder U.S. efforts to forge a cooperative relationship with Beijing.