The United States has the right to fly its planes over the South China Sea and to have its naval and commercial vessels in the location, which is considered international waters, former diplomat Nicholas Burns said Friday, and "we can't be in a situation where China believes they own everything."
"This is a major problem for the United States, and many other countries have it with the Chinese," said Burns, an undersecretary of state under President George W. Bush, told CNN's "New Day" program. The airspace and waters are international airspace, said Burns, and "China doesn't own them."
On Wednesday, the Chinese Navy warned a U.S. surveillance plane eight times as it flew over a series of man-made islands the Chinese military is building up, reports CNN,
whose correspondent Jim Sciutto was on the plane.
The Pentagon and regional allies near China have viewed the buildup with alarm, and the Pentagon has ordered the surveillance flights to make it clear that the United States does not recognize China's claim on the region.
Wednesday night, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told CNN that the confrontation indicates there is "absolutely" a risk that the United States and China could eventually go to war.
However, Burns said Friday that he doesn't believe there is a "high probability" of conflict between the U.S. and China, as that nation "has too much respect for the power of the United States Air Force and Navy to try and take us on."
But still, Burns said, the Chinese are saying that as they are building up the isolated reefs, and "possession is nine-tenth of the law, and they are going to take it when it's not theirs."
The problem with that, and with China's push for dominance in east Asia, is that the United States has been the predominant military force in the region since World War II ended.
"We have alliances there, and all of these countries, the southeast Asian countries, they are smaller than China and can't compete militarily, so they want the rest of the world to stand up for their legal rights," said Burns. "The United States, interestingly enough, they don't try to be the umpire here…[but] we don't want to see an Asia where China uses its muscle to coerce neighbors. This is not China's legal territory."
The United States must continue to assert its right to sail and fly in the international space, said Burns, and President Barack Obama needs to appeal to Chinese President Xi Jinping to control his own military.
"We have seen where the Chinese military acts independently, and they are much more aggressive," said Burns. "We have seen threats in the past, and it's clearly the responsibility of Beijing to get control over this aggressive military."
The U.S. government has already warned the Chinese in the past, said Burns, and "the Obama administration has been working hard on this to convince the Chinese they will be the big losers if there is an incident."
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