MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - The US State Department on Friday criticized China's move to build a military garrison in the disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea amid Beijing's territorial dispute with the Philippines and other countries.
State Department acting deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell, in a press statement, said the garrison and China's Sansha City covering disputed areas "run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region."
"We are concerned by the increase in tensions in the South China Sea and are monitoring the situation closely," he said.
Ventrell said the latest incidents in the dispute waters "include an uptick in confrontational rhetoric, disagreements over resource exploitation, coercive economic actions, and the incidents around the Scarborough Reef, including the use of barriers to deny access."
China banned Philippine bananas while travel agencies in the mainland suspended trips to the Philippines at the height of the standoff between Beijing and Manila over Scarborough Shoal.
Chinese government ships have also imposed a naval blockade around Scarborough Shoal, which is located located just 124 nautical miles off Zambales.
The Philippines tried to raise the issue during the recent ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Phnom Penh, but Beijing -- through host-nation and current ASEAN chair Cambodia -- blocked the move.
Ventrell said that while the US has no position on the competing territorial claims and no territorial ambitions in the West Philippine Sea, it has "a national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce" in the region.
"We believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats, and without the use of force," he added.
Code of Conduct, UNCLOS
"The United States urges all parties to take steps to lower tensions in keeping with the spirit of the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," he said.
"We strongly support ASEAN’s efforts to build consensus on a principles-based mechanism for managing and preventing disputes. We encourage ASEAN and China to make meaningful progress toward finalizing a comprehensive Code of Conduct in order to establish rules of the road and clear procedures for peacefully addressing disagreements," he added.
He said Washington is endorsing the recent ASEAN Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea that was issued by the bloc's members in lieu of a lack of a joint communique after their meeting.
Ventrell said all countries involved in the dispute should clarify and pursue their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
"We believe that claimants should explore every diplomatic or other peaceful avenue for resolution, including the use of arbitration or other international legal mechanisms as needed. We also encourage relevant parties to explore new cooperative arrangements for managing the responsible exploitation of resources in the South China Sea," he said.
China earlier said it will not bring the dispute over the ownership of Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys before international bodies, contrary to the Philippines' position that the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) is the right venue to settle the row.
China rejects 'outside intervention'
China's Defense Ministry on Wednesday warned other countries from having their say in the territorial row.
"We oppose any country outside the region intervening in these disputes," Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said during the 85th founding anniversary of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
"Any intervention by countries outside the region will complicate the problem and even deteriorate the situation," said Geng, a senior colonel in the PLA.
He also defended the deployment of combat-ready Chinese vessels in disputed waters.
"The Chinese navy is justified in protecting the country's interests, and it is groundless to equate such a justified action with tough foreign policy," he said.
Geng also defended the establishment of the new military garrison in the West Philippine Sea, saying that is part of his country's rules in local governance and military structure.