south china sea, more, kina.jpg
Photograph: Photo by Yosomono, used under CC BY

A senior Chinese military official on Saturday rubbished US claims that tensions in the South China Sea were a matter of access rights.

Speaking in a special session on managing tensions in the South China Sea, Major General Yao Yunzhu rebutted the US characterization of the issue as one of freedom of navigation and overflight. 

"We have to be very clear that there are several kinds of disputes in South China Sea," she said, adding that China is strongly opposed to US military operations in its economic zone, rather than the freedom of navigation principle itself.

Yao accused the US of coming up with its own definition of freedom of navigation and expecting others to comply.

"I don't think any state has the right to impose its own understanding of freedom of navigation as a universal rule and label those who do not agree as a default violator of freedom of navigation or even a violator of rule-based maritime order," she said.

US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, in his plenary speech earlier Saturday, described China's activities in the disputed South China Sea as "self-isolating," and warned that it could lead to a "Great Wall of isolation" within the region.

He emphasized the "enduring" US presence in the Asia-Pacific region and its commitment to "uphold core principles, like freedom of navigation and overflight."

"The US will remain for decades the primary provider of regional security and a leading contributor to the region's security network," he told the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, highlighting US military capabilities and hardware.

Carter said China's potential land-reclamation activity on the disputed Scarborough Shoal – which the Philippines also claims – would be "provocative and destabilizing."

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