China’s attempts to claim a nearly 1.4-million-square-mile swathe of open ocean are without precedent and probably without legal merit, but Beijing continues to assert its right to the economically critical zone — and increasingly puts its claims in military terms.

Speaking to a small group of reporters in Beijing on Thursday, a high-ranking Chinese official made his warning clear: The United States should not provoke China in the South China Sea without expecting retaliation.

“The Chinese people do not want to have war, so we will be opposed to [the] U.S. if it stirs up any conflict,” said Liu Zhenmin, vice minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Of course, if the Korean War or Vietnam War are replayed, then we will have to defend ourselves.”

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