China will not accept provocative action in South China Sea: Official

Even as India has pulled out of an offshore oil block in the South China Sea following protests by China, Beijing has reiterated its stand that the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters fall within its "core interests" and it will not accept any "provocative action" in the sea off the China coast.

Jia Xiudong, Senior Fellow in Residence at the state-run China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), Department of International Strategic Studies, said while China does not claim the whole South China Sea, its official position is that it has "undisputable sovereignty over the islands and waters around it".

He,however, added that freedom of navigation in the waters was a "non-issue". CIIS is of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and conducts research and analysis on a wide range of foreign policy issues, according to the official website.

China and its neighbours, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, have been locked in territorial disputes over the sea and the mineral-rich Spratly and Paracel islands and the Scarborough Shoal.

Sounding a tough note, Jia said that China's "restraint" should not be taken as "a sign of weakness and acceptance of encroachment of sovereignty". "China will react now, or in future, no matter what others think of China, in regard to sovereignty issues," he asserted while talking to a group of visiting Indian journalists.

He was reacting to Vietnam's and the Philippines'  "miscalculations" and "provocative actions" in the South China Sea and harassing Chinese fishermen. Last July, the Indian Navy's amphibious warfare ship INS Airavat, which was on a friendly visit to Vietnam in the South China Sea, was contacted by the Chinese Navy on radio and told that it was entering Chinese waters. The vessel proceeded on its journey as scheduled. The Indian government later in a statement said that "India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law".

In May, following objections by China, India's ONGC Videsh, the overseas arm of state-owned ONGC, pulled out of an offshore oil block in Vietnam in the South China Sea.

ONGC Videsh had signed a deal with PetroVietnam in September 2011 for developing long-term cooperation in the oil sector and had accepted Vietnam's offer of exploration in certain blocks in the South China Sea. China had protested  against the move of countries "engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China's jurisdiction".

After China voiced its objection, ONGC Videsh pulled out of the oil block exploration. Last week, India's ONGC and China National Petroleum Corp. inked a deal to jointly explore assets in third countries. The two are already working in Myanmar, Syria and Sudan.

According to Minister of State for Petroleum R.P.N. Singh, activities by Indian companies were "purely commercial in nature"  and that "sovereignty issues must be resolved peacefully by the countries which are parties to the dispute in accordance with the international law and practice".

Jia said few of the ASEAN members were involved in the South China Sea dispute. With Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, Beijing had no sovereignty issues, only "overlapping issues of water". He also said that while the US has shifted its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific , Washington has stated that it will not take sides on the question of sovereignty in the area.

Jia said that navigational freedom in the South China Sea was a "non-issue in the past". He said the US and Japan were talking of navigation to "make a non-issue into an issue".

Last week, China summoned Vietnam's ambassador and protested against a law adopted by the Vietnamese parliament that places the Spratly and Paracel islands under Hanoi's sovereignty.

The Philippines and China are locked in a maritime dispute over the Scarborough Shoal, a reef off the Philippine coast.  The tensions eased when the Philippines ordered two of its ships to withdraw from the shoal last week, a move that was welcomed by China.

China last Thursday announced that it had elevated the administrative status of the Zhongsha and Nansha (Spratly) and Xisha (Paracel) islands from a county to a prefectural-level district, in a move to improve its administrative hold on the islands.

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