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US warns China over civil forces in South China Sea: FT

[LONDON] The head of the US Navy warned China that its coast guard and maritime militia will be treated in the same way as the nation's navy in the South China Sea, the Financial Times reported, citing an interview.

China is increasingly relying on non-naval ships to assert its claims in the region, blurring the line between its military and coast guard, which has complicated US efforts in the past few years, according to the report. China considers at least 80 per cent of the South China Sea to be its sovereign territory, a claim disputed by other regional powers.

Admiral John Richardson told the FT that he has "made it very clear that the US Navy will not be coerced and will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world." Adm Richardson highlighted the apparent policy shift to Shen Jinlong, China's naval commander, during his trip to the country in January.

China's coast guard fleet of large patrol ships has more than doubled to over 130 in the past nine years, making it the largest coast guard force in the world. The maritime militia, an armed reserve force of civilians and fishing boats, is the only one of its kind sanctioned by a government in the world, the Pentagon said its annual report on Chinese military.

Under the Obama administration, the rhetoric from the US wasn't generally belligerent, but the two countries have clashed in the past year. Earlier this month, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he hopes "non-regional forces don't stir up troubles in the South China Sea," after warship USS Wasp joined drills near the Scarborough Shoal.

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