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US says China’s actions in South China Sea destabilising

LiveMint logoLiveMint 31-05-2014 Gopal Ratnam, Sharon Chen and Isabel Reynolds

Washington: US defense secretary Chuck Hagel on Saturday spelled out a series of Chinese actions in parts of the disputed South China Sea and said they were destabilising the region.

While China has said it wants a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation, in recent months it has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea, Hagel said in prepared remarks at an annual security conference in Singapore.

It has restricted access to the Scarborough Reef; put pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal; begun land reclamation activities at multiple locations; and moved an oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands off the coast of Vietnam, Hagel said, listing for the first time Chinese infractions in the region that are alarming Southeast Asian nations.

The stepped-up US comments follow Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s appeal for a stronger voice from the US against China after clashes between coast guard vessels near the rig placed in contested waters. The Philippines, dwarfed militarily by China, has sought support from the US and the United Nations to counter China’s encroachment into shoals off its coast.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has taken a more assertive approach to its territorial claims. During a visit to Beijing in April, Hagel was told by his counterpart, General Chang Wanquan, that China would make no compromise, no concessions in disputes with Japan and the Philippines.

Standing alongside Hagel at a briefing last month, Chang said the Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win. China can’t be contained, Chang said, and the Pacific is huge enough to hold both countries.

International order

In Singapore today, Hagel said the US will not look the other way when fundamental principles of international order are being challenged including moves by China to restrict overflight or freedom of navigation.

US-China military ties have been tested after the US justice department indicted five Chinese military officials on charges of economic espionage linked to computer hacking of US nuclear power, metals and solar companies. China has suspended the US-China Cyber Working Group.

Even so, we will continue to raise cyber issues with our Chinese counterparts, because dialogue is essential for reducing the risk of miscalculation and escalation in cyberspace, Hagel said on Saturday.

Speaking on Friday at the Shangri-La security forum, former Chinese deputy foreign minister Fu Ying said China and the US need to work very hard to try to understand each other.

Misread, misunderstand

There is a tendency that we misread each other, that we misunderstand each other, said Fu, chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress.

Taking questions after his speech on Saturday, Hagel was quizzed by Major-General Yao Yunzhu, director of the Center for China- America Defense Relations at the Academy of Military Science within the People’s Liberation Army, about the US stance over East China Sea islands claimed by both China and Japan. Yao asked if recent US statements about the islands being covered by its defense treaty with Japan were a threat of coercion or intimidation.

I thought I made America’s position clear in my remarks about the position we take on disputed territories, Hagel replied. In fact, I think I repeated our position a number of times.

China’s map

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has moved to toughen Japan’s defense posture in the face of the territorial spat with China. Abe has repeatedly accused China of trying to change the status quo by force, and on Friday reiterated offers to Southeast Asian allies of military equipment and training.

Japan will offer its utmost support for the efforts of the countries of Asean as they work to ensure the security of the seas and the skies, he said in a speech at the forum, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

China claims much of the South China Sea under its nine- dash line map, first published in 1947, which extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo, taking in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also claim parts of the sea.

‘No Victor’

Vietnam has prepared evidence for a lawsuit challenging China’s claim and is considering the best time to file it, Dung said on Friday in an interview.

If open conflict were to erupt in the South China Sea, there will be no victor, Dung warned, saying that two-thirds of global maritime trade passes through shipping lanes in the area. Everyone will lose, he said. The whole world economy will be hurt and damaged immeasurably.

Malaysia defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he is increasingly concerned about tensions in the waters.

However, inflamed rhetoric and mutual recrimination will not do any country any good, he told the forum in Singapore. World War 1, he said, was started by sheer accident. That we must avoid for our region as the world focuses in this area.

Vietnam said China rammed one of its fishing boats on 26 May near the oil rig. The sinking happened two days after Chinese fighter jets flew within tens of meters of Japanese surveillance planes in the East China Sea.

China blamed the boat-sinking on Vietnam and accused Japan of infringing on a no-fly zone it set up for its first bilateral naval exercises with Russia in the East China Sea.

Rebalance ‘reality’

Japanese and Chinese coast guard vessels have tailed one another around the uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, since Japan bought three of them from a private Japanese owner late in 2012. Abe has not held a summit with China since taking office almost 18 months ago.

While the US has repeatedly said its obligation to defend Japan extends to the disputed islands, US President Barack Obama said in a speech on defense policy this week that the armed forces can’t be the primary component of our leadership.

Hagel on Saturdaty repeated the US pledge to its strategic and economic rebalancing to Asia even as crises in Europe and the Middle East capture America’s attention.

The US remains committed to ensuring that any reductions in US defense spending do not come at the expense of America’s commitments in the Asia-Pacific, Hagel said. The rebalance is not a goal, promise, or a vision it is a reality. BLOOMBERG

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