By Ben Blanchard and Megha Rajagopalan
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's government sought to downplay fears of conflict in the South China Sea after an influential state-run newspaper said on Tuesday that Beijing should prepare for military confrontation.
Editorials in the Global Times newspaper ahead of a July 12 international court ruling on competing claims in the South China Sea by China and the Philippines said the dispute had already been complicated by U.S. intervention.
It faced further escalation due to the threat posed by The Hague-based tribunal to China's sovereignty, the paper said.
"Washington has deployed two carrier battle groups around the South China Sea, and it wants to send a signal by flexing its muscles: As the biggest powerhouse in the region, it awaits China's obedience," the Global Times said.
The paper said China should speed up development of its military deterrence. While it could not keep up with the United States in the short-term, "it should be able to let the U.S. pay a cost it cannot stand if it intervenes in the South China Sea dispute by force," the paper said.
"China hopes disputes can be resolved by talks, but it must be prepared for any military confrontation. This is common sense in international relations."
Asked about the editorials and whether conflict could break out in the South China Sea, where China's territorial claims overlap in parts with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing was committed to peace.
"China will work with ASEAN countries to safeguard the peace and stability of the South China Sea," he told a news briefing, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"As for the relevant dispute, China does not accept any decision imposed by a third party as a means of resolution, nor any solution plan that is forced upon China."
The Global Times is published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, and while it is widely read in policy-making circles it does not have the same mouthpiece function as its parent and its editorials cannot be viewed as representing government policy.
It is also well-known for its extreme nationalist views.
In Washington on Tuesday, a former top Chinese official said China would not resort to force "unless challenged by armed provocation," but had had enough of Western "bullying."
Dai Bingguo, Beijing's former state councillor, dismissed the court ruling as "nothing more than a piece of paper," but said there was an "urgent priority" to stop the case.
"No country" should try to force China to implement it "otherwise China will not sit idle," he said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, adding that if Washington was committed to peace, it should "oppose or restrain provocations by certain countries against China."
Dai said China would not be intimidated even if Washington sent 10 carriers to the South China Sea, but warned that Washington "may be dragged into trouble against its own will and pay an unexpectedly heavy price."
Regarding the Global Times comments, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told a regular briefing the United States did "not seek any confrontation with China" but would maintain its "stabilizing" presence in the region.
"We’ve pointed to the diplomatic route for resolving these issues...they should be resolved peacefully," he said adding the ruling from the Hague would provide an opportunity for this.
China has been angered by U.S. patrols in the South China Sea and will be holding what the Defence Ministry terms "routine" military drills there from Tuesday.
Manila has sought to reduce tensions ahead of the court decision but has resisted pressure to ignore it.
"Nobody wants a conflict, nobody wants to resolve our conflict in a violent manner, nobody wants war,” Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay told ANC television.
"The President would like to maintain stronger, better relationships with everybody, including China, including the United States, including Japan and all," Yasay said, referring to President Rodrigo Duterte, who was sworn in last week.
Yasay said a "special envoy" was needed to help resolve the dispute with China.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that the court ruling could prompt Beijing to declare an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest trade routes, and boost its military capabilities there.
China's response would "fully depend" on the Philippines, the China Daily said, citing unidentified sources. "There will be no incident at all if all related parties put aside the arbitration results," one said.
(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila and David Brunnstrom and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Andrew Hay)