By Daniel Llanto i FilAm Star Correspondent

As China and the United States square off in the South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea), Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana warned that the dispute could spark war if both antagonists insisted on keeping control of this key artery of international shipping and trade.

At the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) international security forum in Singapore, Lorenzana spoke of the possible international conflict as the US accused China anew of bullying its Asian neighbors and “deploying advanced weapons systems to militarize the disputed areas.”

Earlier in the same forum, Chinese officials acknowledged for the first time that it was placing weapons and troops on reefs and islands they considered theirs.

Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s minister of national defense, told the international security forum that China is well within its rights to build defense facilities on its natural and man-made islands in the South China Sea.

“It is the legitimate rights of a sovereign state to carry out construction on its own territory,” said Wei, the first Chinese defense minister to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue since 2011.

He added, “Where there (is) threat, there is defense. In the face of heavily armed warships and military aircraft, how can we stay impervious and not build some defense facilities?”

Another Chinese general hit back at “irresponsible” comments on Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance on the South China Sea after US Defense Sec. James Mattis accused the country of coercing and intimidating its neighbors with its military activities in the resource-rich sea.

“Deploying troops and weapons on islands in the South China Sea is within China’s sovereign right to do and allowed by international law,” He Lei, a lieutenant-general of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was quoted as saying in South China Morning Post.

The PLA lieutenant-general added, “All irresponsible remarks (on the subject is) an infringement of China’s domestic affairs.”

The Chinese general said they would not hesitate to take military action to defend China’s maritime claims.

Lorenzana said such dispute could possibly spark war.

“With the untethering of our networks of economic inter-dependence comes growing risk of confrontation that could lead to war. Our greatest fear, therefore, is the possibility of sleepwalking into another international conflict like (another) World War,” the Philippine Defense chief added.

Lorenzana said war could happen, “even when no one desires it.”

He suggested that “confidence-building measures” should be comprehensive to cover all relevant concerns.

“This is most especially important in potential flashpoints such as the South and East China Seas, where the risk of miscalculation and unwanted conflict is rising on a daily basis, as great powers expand their military footprint and pursue divergent visions,” he said.

The nations, he added, should agree that freedom of navigation and over-flight at international seas is “indispensable to regional peace and security.”

“In our view, no single power should exercise unilateral control over vital arteries of global trade, such as the South China Sea. We need to collectively protect our global commons,” Lorenzana said.

The Defense chief cited several disputes in Asia such as the Sabah dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines, the Ligitan and Sipadan dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia, and the border dispute surrounding the Preah Vihear Temple between Cambodia and Thailand, among others.

He called for a peaceful and multilateral approach in resolving the South China Sea dispute.

“In more concrete terms,” Lorenzana said, “we should consider joint exploration activities, as well as environmental protection regimes, which ensures the equitable, just and lawful exploration, usage, sharing of hydro-carbon reserves and preservation and protection of marine resources.” .

“What is clear is that great power rivalry is a dangerous distraction from the coming storm. But if we continue to closely collaborate and cooperate we may very well overcome these existential challenges and, along the way, create a more inclusive, nimble and robust security architecture — one that is upheld by the collective effort of every nation, no matter their size, resources and creed,” he added.

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