In an exclusive interview with Channel News Asia, US President Barack Obama said Washington will “continue to test” Beijing’s pledge to not militarize the disputed South China Sea.
His comments came a day before Taiwan announced China had deployed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands chain.
“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,” Obama said in the interview recorded Feb 16.
The Chinese Defense Ministry called reports about the missile deployment “hype by certain Western media outlets,” adding that it has controlled the Paracels since the end of the Vietnam War. However, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of it.
“The Paracel Islands have always been a part of China’s territory,” the ministry said in a statement. “China has the legitimate and legal rights to deploy defense facilities within its territory, in order to defend the sovereignty and security of the country.”
Obama’s interview was held on the sidelines of the president’s meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The first such meeting of its kind on US soil brought together leaders to discuss regional issues.
During the interview, Obama said there remains “significant potential for conflict” between claimants in the South China Sea dispute. However, he did not elaborate on whether the US would war with China over territorial matters.
“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,” Obama said.
The meeting statement didn’t mention China by name, but referred to a general “peaceful resolution of disputes.”
Nonetheless, China has showed little signs of keeping their promise to not militarize the South China Sea.
US Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Beijing following news of the missile deployment.
“There is every evidence, every day, that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another. It’s of a serious concern,” Kerry said.