MANILA, Philippines — China respects freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea but will not allow any foreign government to invoke that right so its military ships and planes can intrude in Beijing's territory, the Chinese ambassador said.
Ambassador Zhao Jianhua said late Tuesday that Chinese forces warned a U.S. Navy P-8A not to intrude when the warplane approached a Chinese-occupied area in the South China Sea's disputed Spratly Islands in May. A CNN reporter who was on board the plane, which had taken off from the Philippines, reported the incident then.
"We just gave them warnings, be careful, not to intrude," Zhao told reporters on the sidelines of a diplomatic event in Manila.
Washington, however, does not recognize any territorial claim by any country in the South China Sea, a policy that collides with the position of China, which claims virtually the entire sea.
When asked why China shooed away the U.S. Navy plane when it has pledged to respect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Zhao outlined the limits in China's view.
"Freedom of navigation does not mean to allow other countries to intrude into the airspace or the sea which is sovereign. No country will allow that," Zhao said. "We say freedom of navigation must be observed in accordance with international law. No freedom of navigation for warships and airplanes."
Zhao also repeated an earlier pronouncement by Beijing that China's use of land reclamation to create new islands at a number of disputed Spratly reefs has ended. China, he said, would now start constructing facilities to support freedom of navigation, search and rescue efforts when accidents occur, and scientific research.
"When we say we're going to stop reclamation, we mean it," Zhao said.
He acknowledged that "necessary defense facilities" would also be constructed.
The U.S. and its allies, including the Philippines, have asked China to stop the massive island construction, saying it has increased tensions in an increasingly militarized area and threatened regional stability. They say the Chinese construction work violates a 2002 regional pact signed by Beijing which urges rival claimants not to undertake new construction or take any step that would worsen tensions.
Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said last month in Manila that Washington does not recognize any of the territorial claims and its position won't change even if disputed areas are reinforced by construction work.
"We recognize those claims as being contested and the contested nature of those claims is unchanged despite the reclamation efforts of any country, any country, not just China," Swift said.
Territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have flared on and off for years, creating fears that the South China Sea could spark Asia's next major armed conflict. Tensions rose again last year when China began the island building on at least seven reefs in the Spratlys.
Zhao also said China does not know the source of a long pipeline kept afloat by plastic floatation devices with Chinese markings that was recently found by Filipino fishermen near the coast of the northwestern Philippines.
There has been speculation that the pipeline may have been used in China's island-making and dredging work and then drifted away for unclear reasons, posing a hazard to passing ships. Philippine coast guard officials say they have not ascertained who owned the pipeline.
"Even the people there cannot tell so it's not sure where it came from," Zhao said.