US condemns China’s ‘escalation’ of ‘calculated’ South China Sea confrontations

The U.S. on Thursday condemned a “escalation” of tension in the South China Sea after Chinese coast guard vessels fired water cannons at a Philippine frigate and detained two sailors on Wednesday.

President Donald Trump’s administration cited the confrontations at sea as worrisome signs of a possible increase in hostilities in the South China Sea, a region marked by multiple territorial disputes among major powers.

“China’s action is a clear escalation of tensions in the region,” the U.S. State Department said. “The U.S. strongly urges China to cease the use of force and intimidation against lawful maritime traffic.”

The statement came as the U.S. Navy started a three-day regional exercise in the region, part of a diplomatic push against China over its involvement in the contested South China Sea region.

Vice Adm. Phil Davidson, head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said during a Pentagon briefing that U.S. allies and partners will join with American naval vessels and aircraft to conduct naval and air exercises with 16 other nations, including Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Japan and Taiwan. The effort is meant to send a message to Beijing that the seas are shared and not just China’s property.

On Wednesday, two Chinese coast guard vessels pulled into an area between the Scarborough Shoal and Pagasa, another reef in the disputed Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea. After an inspection, they began firing on a Philippine frigate — then began boarding the vessel.

“After they pulled up to the frigate and tried to board it, the Philippine ship complied with the international law of the sea,” Davidson said.

Philippine authorities provided information about the incident to China and Washington, but had so far not taken any steps to prosecute the Chinese sailors, he said.

Asked if the incident would be looked at when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits China next week, Davidson said that officials will look at how it fits into China’s overall strategy in the region.

“We certainly take the position, and the Philippine government is taking the position that those kinds of actions have no place in this region,” he said.

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