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Angry China warns of sea conflict

BEIJING (AFP) – China warned of “conflicts and confrontation” in the South China Sea as it angrily rejected Wednesday an international tribunal’s verdict that its claims to most of the strategically vital waterway had no legal basis.

The surprisingly strong and sweeping ruling by the UN-backed body in The Hague provided powerful diplomatic ammunition to the Philippines, which filed the challenge, and other claimants in their decades-long disputes with China over the resource-rich waters.

China reacted furiously to Tuesday’s decision, with its foreign ministry quickly declaring it “null and void” and the government releasing a white paper on Wednesday insisting on the validity of the historical rights for claiming sovereignty that the tribunal rejected.

In Washington, the Chinese ambassador to the United States gave a blunt assessment of what the ruling could mean for a body of water that has long been regarded as a potential military flashpoint, and the site of deadly clashes between Vietnam and China.

“It will certainly undermine or weaken the motivation of states to engage in negotiations and consultations for solving their dispute. It will certainly intensify conflicts and even confrontation,” ambassador Cui Tiankai said.

China justifies its position by saying it was the first to have discovered, named and exploited the sea, and outlines its claims for most of the waterway using a vague map made up of nine dashes that emerged in the 1940s.

Those claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Manila, under previous president Benigno Aquino, launched the legal case in 2013 after China took control of Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and far away from the nearest major Chinese landmass.

China has also in recent years built giant artificial islands capable of hosting military installations and airstrips in the Spratlys archipelago, one of the biggest groups of islands in the sea.