China's Sovereignty Over South China Sea 'Indisputable,' Beijing Claims

China described its claim to every island in the South China Sea as "indisputable" on Thursday as it pushed back against behavior that Vice President Kamala Harris called coercion and bullying this week.

Reefs and shoals within the energy-rich waters are contested by five other claimants including Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, while Indonesia claims rights to exclusive fishing zones. Additional stakeholders comprise other littoral states and extra-regional parties, all of which have an interest in maintaining critical commercial sea lines that run through the waters.

Beijing's response to regional government concerns about its construction of artificial islands and imposing of unilateral fishing moratoria in the sea has been to cite history and its expansive "nine-dash line."

"China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters," China's Defense Ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei told a monthly press conference on Thursday.

"China is committed to resolving relevant disputes through negotiations and consultations with the countries directly concerned on the basis of respecting historical facts and international law," Tan said in a dig at the U.S.

China Claims South China Sea Sovereignty Indisputable
Vice President Kamala Harris holds a press conference before departing Vietnam for the United States, following her first official visit to Asia, in Hanoi, Vietnam, on August 26, 2021. EVELYN HOCKSTEIN / POOL/AFP via Getty Images

China's neighbors, many of which count Beijing as their largest trading partner, have been varied in their responses to its gradual expansion through the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the U.S. sees itself as providing the confidence and capacity for small and medium powers to speak up without fear of overt retribution—much to China's annoyance.

In separate foreign policy speeches made in Singapore and Vietnam this week, Vice President Harris said Beijing "continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea. These unlawful claims have been rejected by the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision."

"Beijing's actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations. The United States stands with our allies and partners in the face of these threats," she said.

In Hanoi, Harris said the U.S. and its partners "need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims."

She called on the Vietnamese government to jointly oppose China's behavior and committed to maintaining the U.S.' "strong presence in the South China Sea."

Harris echoed comments made by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Singapore last month, when he described China's claim to the vast majority of the sea as having "no basis in international law." The assertion "treads on the sovereignty of states in the region," Austin said.

Pushing back, Tan accused the U.S. of being the "direct driver of tensions" in the contested waters.

"As an extra-regional country, the United States ignores international law and the basic norms of international relations, often showing off its military force in the South China Sea under the guise of 'freedom of navigation' to provoke, disrupt and continually undermine the efforts of regional countries to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea," said the Chinese defense official.

"We urge the United States to truly respect China's core interests and major concerns," he added, saying China's resolve to defend its territory was "rock solid."

China Claims South China Sea Sovereignty Indisputable
File photo: An enhanced satellite image of the South China Sea, where littoral states including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all claim islands or features in the waters. maps4media via Getty Images