Friday, April 10, 2015

• Pentagon chief vows to deploy 'best' US weaponry to Asia - AFP

Seoul (AFP) - Defence Secretary Ashton Carter promised Friday that the US would deploy state of the art weaponry in Asia, including the latest stealth bombers and cyber warfare units, to counter threats posed by the likes of North Korea.

"Our newest and best things are being deployed to this part of the world," Carter said in Seoul -- the second leg of a visit to the two key US military allies in the region, Japan and South Korea.

The Pentagon chief said his talks with South Korean Defence Minister Han Min-Koo had included a "candid assessment" of the threat posed to the Korean peninsula -- "and the US homeland" -- by North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme.

"As it demonstrated once again with the recent missile launches, North Korea is intent on continued provocation," he told reporters.

The North fired two surface-to-air missiles off its west coast on Tuesday, just as Carter arrived in Japan on the first leg of his tour.

Earlier, it had test fired a series of short range ballistic missiles to express its anger with annual South Korean-US military exercises which Pyongyang condemns as rehearsals for invasion.

The United States has close to 30,000 troops permanently stationed in South Korea and would assume operational command of both armed forces in the event of a conflict with the North.

South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye (R) shakes hands with US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carte …

The two Koreas remain technically at war because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty.

- Tailor-made weaponry -

Stressing that military deterrence and readiness were "at a premium" on the divided peninsula, Carter said the US was investing in "advanced capabilities .... tailored to this dynamic security environment."

Asked to expand, he cited new stealth bombers, F-35 stealth fighters and highly developed cyber warfare systems that could be rotationally deployed in the Asian theatre.

North Korea has an advanced cyber warfare capability which it has wielded in damaging hacking assaults on South Korean financial institutions.

The FBI has accused the North of being behind a devastating cyber attack on Sony Pictures, the studio behind the Hollywood film "The Interview" -- a comedy about a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

 South Korea and the United States have 
launched a major joint air force exercise, 
in a move likely t …

At the same time, he said his talks in Seoul had not touched on the sensitive issue of a missile defence system, known as THAAD, that Washington is looking to deploy in South Korea.

China and Russia are both vocally opposed to the THAAD deployment, warning that it would undermine regional peace and stability.

It's a tricky issue for Seoul which must weigh the priorities of its most important military ally, the US, against its largest trade partner, China.

Carter insisted THAAD was not discussed in Seoul because the system was still in production.

"We're not at the point yet where we would begin discussing its deployment with anybody," he said.
- Tokyo-Seoul rift -

Carter's two-nation trip was partly aimed at underlining President Barack Obama's commitment to a US strategic shift to Asia -- a move complicated by tensions between its allies in Seoul and Tokyo.

Washington has pushed hard for the two neighbours to put simmering territorial and historical disputes behind them, and Obama even hosted a strained three-way leadership summit in March last year.

But relations remain extremely frosty, and Carter said there was only so much the US could do.

"We hope for healing and reconciliation, but it is not for the United States to interpose itself between the parties," he said.

After the press conference, Carter visited a memorial to the 46 seamen who died in the 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan.

A South Korean-led investigation involving a team of international experts concluded the ship was sunk by a North Korean submarine torpedo, but Pyongyang has always denied involvement.

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Beijing reaffirmed its right to build on disputed islands in the South China Sea on Thursday after satellite imagery emerged of construction operations turning tropical reefs into concrete artificial islands.

The newly released images prompted concern from the United States, which warned China that its island building activity posed a threat to regional stability.

"In our view, China's land reclamation and the construction activity are fuelling greater anxiety within the region," State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters.

Rathke said Washington is concerned that China "might militarise outposts on disputed land features of the South China Sea.

"So we are watching these developments closely and we continue to raise our concerns with China as well as with others in the region to urge all parties to avoid destabilising activities," Rathke said.

The Philippines -- one of the most vocal of China's neighbours in defending its competing territorial claim -- reacted strongly, calling for the Asian giant to "dismantle" the reclaimed land.

"They have to dismantle it," said Peter Paul Galvez, spokesman for Manila's defence department. "It is a concern not only of our country and region but of the whole international community."

A series of satellite images posted on the website of the Center for Strategic and International Studies show a flotilla of Chinese vessels dredging sand onto Mischief Reef and the resulting land spreading in size.

Before-and-after images of other outcrops in the Spratly Islands record runways appearing from jungle, smooth-sided solid masses where coral once lay, and man-made harbours replacing natural reefs.

Thitu Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea (AFP Photo/Rolex …

Analysts say the pictures show how China is attempting to create facts in the water to bolster its sovereignty claims.

Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost the whole of the South China Sea, including areas close to the coasts of other littoral states, using a nine-segment line based on one that first appeared on Chinese maps in the 1940s.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have overlapping claims.
- 'Indisputable sovereignty' -

"China exerts indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha islands and affiliated waters," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, using the Chinese name for the islands, which literally means "Southern Sand".

"Such construction is totally within China's sovereignty, and it is legitimate, sensible and lawful. It does not influence nor target any specific country."

The works were to "safeguard the territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests of China", she said, adding: "We will build more civilian facilities."

The Philippines has taken its sovereignty claim to the United Nations for arbitration, a process rejected by Beijing.

Manila has troops stationed on some islands it controls, which also have civilian residents.

"As we have mentioned more than once, actually since this administration started, we have been warning everyone of the implications of their (China's) actions, of their aggressive means so like today, these reclamations... will have further implications in the long term," defence spokesman Galvez told AFP.

The South China Sea is home to strategically vital shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas, and the territorial dispute has raised concerns in Washington, with the US asserting that freedom of navigation is in its national interest.

The new satellite photographs were taken by Digital Globe, a commercial provider of satellite images, and analysed by CSIS.

"It appears that China's building projects are part of an expansive territorial grab or to make China's disputed Nine-Dash Line claim a reality," US Navy Lieutenant Commander Wilson VornDick wrote in an analysis on the CSIS site.

The director of the centre's Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Mira Rapp-Hooper, told the New York Times: "China's building activities at Mischief Reef are the latest evidence that Beijing's land reclamation is widespread and systematic."

US admiral Harry Harris last month reportedly said that Chinese reclamation efforts in the area had created more than four square kilometres of artificial landmass.

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BEIJING (AP) — China said Friday it only seeks peace in the South China Sea, rejecting comments by President Barack Obama that Beijing is using its muscle to intimidate neighbors in a region where U.S. officials say China also is aggressively creating artificial land to bolster its position.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China advocated talks to resolve tensions between rival claimants to the strategic waters and island groups that sit astride some of the world's busiest shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and potentially huge mineral reserves.

"I think you will agree with me that China has been a robust force for the preservation and promotion of peace and stability in the South China Sea," Hua said.

Obama said Thursday that the U.S. is concerned that China is not abiding by international norms and is using its "sheer size and muscle" to bully smaller claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

"We think this can be solved diplomatically, but just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn't mean that they can just be elbowed aside," Obama told reporters while on a visit to Jamaica. Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also claim all or parts of the South China Sea.

In an apparent reference to the U.S., Hua said: "I think everybody can clearly see who has the biggest size and muscle in the world." She added that, "We hope the U.S. can ... genuinely play a positive, constructive and responsible role in promoting peace and stability in the South China Sea and the region."

The U.S. has increasingly expressed concern about continuing Chinese construction that artificially adds land to the reefs and islands it controls in the region, projects documented by aerial photos and eyewitness accounts. U.S. military officials have said they could be aimed at hosting military facilities as part of an "aggressive" effort to exert sovereignty there.

Hua said Thursday that such work was mainly for peaceful civilian purposes such as aiding fishermen, but also served to "meet necessary demands" for defense. She also reiterated China's stance that its sovereignty over the area gives it the right to carry out whatever work it deems worthy, but that such activities are not directed at any third parties.

China says it wants a code of conduct between the parties to avoid conflicts in the South China Sea, but says the U.S. and other countries without direct claims in the region should stay on the sidelines.

While the U.S. says it takes no position on sovereignty issues, its mutual-defense treaty with the Philippines could draw it into a confrontation with China in the event of a military crisis.

Washington also strongly insists on freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and the presence of the U.S. Navy in the area is a source of constant frustration for Beijing.

On a visit to Tokyo Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. advocated that "no changes in the status quo are made coercively and that territorial disputes, which are long-standing, are not militarized."

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