February 18, 2016 / 12:29 AM / 2 years ago

U.S. and EU warn China on need to respect South China Sea ruling

Woody Island, a island in the South China Sea occupied by China and claimed by several other countries, is shown in satellite images taken on February 14, 2016 and February 3, 2016, in this handout image provided by ImageSat International N.V. 2016, on February 18, 2016. China has "challenged" reports that it deployed advanced surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island, Australia's foreign minister said on Thursday, as Beijing told Canberra to stop interfering.ImageSat International N.V. 2016/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and the European Union warned China on Wednesday that it should respect an international court ruling expected later this year on its dispute with the Philippines over territory in the South China Sea.

China claims virtually all the South China Sea and rejects the authority of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague hearing the dispute, even though Beijing has ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea on which the case is based.

Amy Searight, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defence for South and Southeast Asia, said the United States, the European Union, and allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea must be ready to make clear that the court's ruling must be binding and that there would be costs to China for not respecting it if it lost the case.

"We need to be ready to be very loud and vocal, in harmony together, standing behind the Philippines and the rest of the ASEAN claimants to say that this is international law, this is incredibly important, it is binding on all parties," she told a seminar at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Searight said the message to China, if it did not respect a negative ruling, should be, "we will hold you accountable."

"Certainly, reputational cost is at stake, but we can think of other creative ways to perhaps impose costs as well," she said without elaborating.

The Hague tribunal has no powers of enforcement and its rulings have been ignored before. Manila has said the court may hand down a ruling before May.

China disputes South China Sea territory with several other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as the Philippines.

The artificial island at the southern end of Mischief Reef showing a newly-built seawall on its north side and a completed dock are shown in this Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative January 8, 2016 satellite image released to Reuters on January 15, 2016.CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Digital Globe/Handout via Reuters

Klaus Botzet, head of the political section of the EU Delegation in Washington, said it was difficult to oppose world opinion.

"A joint Western, a joint world opinion, matters also for Beijing," he said.

The northwest side of Mischief Reef showing a 1,900 foot seawall and newly-constructed infrastructure including housing, an artificial turf parade grounds, cement plants, and docking facilities are shown in this Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative January 8, 2016 satellite image released to Reuters on January 15, 2016.CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Digital Globe/Handout via Reuters

"If we unanimously support that international law as formulated by the international tribunal in the Hague ... needs to be upheld, that's a very strong message and will be very difficult to ignore," he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he had "noted" the comments, and repeated China's opposition to the arbitration case and refusal to participate.

The Philippines' "scheme would never succeed", he told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

In unusually forthright language, Botzet said China's policy of military buildup was not in its interest.

"It's investing much more in its military relative to its economic growth; it's forcing its neighbours into alliances against itself; positions its neighbours otherwise wouldn't take and the return on investment on this policy is negative," he said.

The United States had exceptional military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific, Botzet said, adding that the European Union "strongly supports the American guarantee of international law in Asia."

Additional reporting by Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Bernard Orr and Clarence Fernandez

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