Wednesday, October 10, 2012

• Tiny island in South China Sea is stirring up tensions

Tiny island in South China Sea is stirring up tensions
by Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY -7/14/2012

BEIJING – A tiny island of mostly fishermen in the South China Sea has emerged as the symbol of tensions between China and its smaller neighbors sparring over 1 million square miles of maritime riches

Sansha city is 5 square miles of sparsely populated land far from the coast of China. But its city limits run an astonishing distance — hundreds of miles over atolls, fishing grounds and energy deposits, some of which are much closer to the Philippines and Vietnam than the People's Republic of China.

That overreach is at the heart of an annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where nations are appealing to the United States to get China to curb its territorial claims.

"None of us can fail to be concerned by the increase in tensions, the uptick in confrontational rhetoric and disagreements over resource exploitation," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the meeting Thursday.

Clinton said the United States has an interest in freedom of navigation and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea, but "we do not take sides in disputes about territorial or maritime boundaries."

That position may not be what other Asian nations want to hear.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia all claim parts of the South China Sea, especially those close to their shores. Japan, though not a full member of ASEAN, is also demanding China keep away from what it says is its territory.

In June, China withdrew its boats from a lagoon off Scarborough Shoal, about 135 miles from the Philippines, after a confrontation with the Philippines Navy. On Wednesday, Japan demanded China remove three Chinese patrol boats spotted in Japanese territorial waters off the coast of the Senkaku islands

ASEAN's 10 members would like to have talks to solve the matter, but China, which is not a member, has shown little interest. Even members of ASEAN cannot agree over how to proceed.

"More importantly than simply responding to the past is to move forward to ensure that these kinds of events no longer recur," said Indonesia's foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, in a statement at the opening of the ASEAN meeting.

The South China Sea is a waterway in which as much as a third of the world trade passes and its resources have yet to be fully explored. Aside from an abundance of fishing grounds, preliminary tests indicate it may hold huge deposits of oil and natural gas coveted by an energy-hungry China.

China only moved to elevate the status of Sansha to prefecture-level of mainland Hainan province on June 21, handing with it the alleged authority over much of the South China Sea. China experts say the action was significant.

"Sansha will help China strengthen its claims over the South China Sea," Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, said recently.

China has also yet to retreat from a map it submitted to the United Nations in which it drew a line that encompasses the sea for China, and Beijing is busy reinforcing Sansha's status.

Its main island now features in China's national weather forecast. A military command is being set up, and new buildings underway include a detention center for foreign fisherman caught trespassing in Chinese waters, reported the Global Times newspaper.

The propagandists are en route too: a new archive office will become a base for patriotic and defense education, said Xinhua, the state news agency.

Liu Feng, a researcher at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, says the attempt by its ASEAN neighbors to establish a code of conduct in the sea can help manage disputes but not settle them. China prefers to deal with the issue one-on-one with individual nations, but "the USA is stirring up trouble, pushing China's neighbors."

Vietnam and the Philippines have reacted angrily to the creation of Sansha city and China's announcement in June that it is opening up areas for offshore oil and gas exploration close to Vietnam. Both moves represent normal administrative and business behavior, Liu said.

"China is not more aggressive than before," he said. "I prefer to say it's more active."

Ian Storey, a regional expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says no side is blameless is the confrontations taking place in the sea. But the announcement by China National Offshore Oil Corp. "is quite disturbing," he said.

The area China intends to drill for oil and gas is within Vietnam's internationally recognized 200-mile exclusive economic zone, waters that all coastal nations claim in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. But China abides by its dashed-line map that gives it "historic" sovereignty over 80% of the South China Sea.

"If China gets away with its interpretation, it will help fashion the law in China's interest," Storey says.

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