Wednesday, May 13, 2015

• China Lashes Out Over U.S. Plan on South China Sea
Pentagon proposal to use aircraft and Navy vessels in region prompts swift response: ‘We are severely concerned’
By EVA DOU and JAMES HOOKWAYMay 13, 2015 5:09 a.m. ET

The USS Fort Worth conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea as the Chinese guided-missile frigate Yancheng sails close behind. PHOTO: U.S. NAVY

Beijing condemned on Wednesday a proposed U.S. military plan to send aircraft and Navy ships near disputed South China Sea islands to contest Chinese territorial claims over the area.

“We are severely concerned about relevant remarks made by the American side. We believe the American side needs to make clarification on that,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

The unusually strong comments came after U.S. officials said Defense Secretary Ash Carter had asked his staff to look at options to counter China’s increasingly assertive claims over disputed islets in the South China Sea. Those options, officials said, include flying Navy surveillance aircraft over islands and sending U.S. Navy ships within 12 nautical miles of reefs that have been built up in recent months around the Spratly Islands.

“We always uphold the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” Ms. Hua said. “But the freedom of navigation definitely does not mean the military vessel or aircraft of a foreign country can willfully enter the territorial waters or airspace of another country. The Chinese side firmly upholds national sovereignty and security.”

Ms. Hua said Beijing urged “relevant countries to refrain from taking risky and provocative action.”

The proposed U.S. military maneuvers and China’s swift response have raised the stakes in an already tense regional showdown over who controls the disputed waters. Six governments–China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines—claim the South China Sea waters, islands, reefs and atolls in whole or in part.
China has condemned a U.S. military plan to send aircraft and Navy vessels to the South China Sea in light of China’s territorial claims. WSJ’s Julian Barnes explains. Photo: Getty Images

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The Philippines, the country in the region that has taken the most confrontational stance against China, quickly welcomed news of the U.S. plan.

Other Southeast Asian nations generally held their tongue. Privately, many diplomats and leaders in the region say they worry about the potentially destabilizing impact of a confrontation between Washington and Beijing.

Manila has mounted a legal challenge of China’s claims at the United Nations, much to Beijing’s annoyance, and the country’s foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, said Tuesday in Washington that the Philippines is seeking more help from the U.S. in pegging back China’s land-reclamation efforts in disputed waters.

“The Philippines believes that the U.S., as well as all responsible members of the international community, do have an interest and say in what is happening in the South China Sea,” said Charles Jose, spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, early Wednesday, citing freedom of navigation and unimpeded flow of commerce among other factors.

The Philippines has tried to nudge the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations closer to a firmer stand against China’s continuing land-reclamation projects, but many countries are wary. A recent statement from Asean criticizing land-reclamation programs in the South China Sea, for instance, didn’t specifically name China.

The biggest concern among some is that U.S. efforts to ensure free navigation in the region might be interpreted in China as an effort to contain Beijing’s growing influence, which could escalate tensions further.

Malaysia, which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of Asean, also lays claim to parts of the South China Sea, but officials there said it was too soon to say anything about the U.S.’s new direction.

Officials in Vietnam, another claimant, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told The Wall Street Journal that Canberra doesn’t take sides on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, but is in close contact with the U.S. on regional tensions.

“We are concerned that land reclamation activity by China and other claimants could raise tensions in the region,” Ms. Bishop said.

The expansion of South China Sea shoals has put Canberra in an uncomfortable position between Washington, its longstanding security ally, and China, its largest trade partner. Defense Minister Kevin Andrews is expected to discuss regional tensions with his U.S. counterpart, Mr. Carter, in Singapore in a few weeks.

U.S. military commanders have in recent months urged Australia to consider joining multinational patrols in international waters north of Indonesia, while also increasing the frequency of U.S. warship and aircraft visits through Australian bases on the periphery of regional tensions.

Other U.S. allies in the region had little to say.
A South Korea Foreign Ministry statement expressed hope China and Asean would agree on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, saying, “A guarantee of security and rights of free navigation in South China Sea, a major maritime route, is a very important issue for South Korea, which relies heavily on trade.” A ministry official said it is inappropriate for Seoul to comment directly on South China Sea territorial disputes.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga refrained from commenting on the considerations by the U.S., its top ally, saying only that the Japanese government wasn’t aware of the matter.

Japan and the Philippines, which have beefed up security ties in response to China’s maritime assertiveness, on Tuesday conducted a joint naval exercise in the South China Sea. Japan sent two destroyers to participate in the drill, which it said took place in “the waters west of Manila.”

While the two navies have trained jointly before, the latest session featured for the first time an exercise focused on communications strategies to respond to “unplanned encounters at sea.”

Security experts are closely watching whether Japan will start sending surveillance planes and naval vessels to the contentious waters of the South China Sea to aid the U.S.’s efforts to patrol the region.

So far, Mr. Carter has only asked his staff to look into various ways to contest China’s claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea.

China, meanwhile, has consistently said it has uncontested sovereignty over islands and adjacent waters within the so-called nine-dash line by which Beijing delineates its claim to almost all of the South China Sea. It has also said that the reclamation projects are mostly for civilian purposes. Recently, China’s navy chief, Adm. Wu Shengli, told his U.S. counterpart, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, in a conference call reported by China’s Ministry of Defense that facilities it is building could be used in joint search-and rescue operations.

U.S. estimates suggest that China has expanded the land it controls in the Spratlys chain to as much as 2,000 acres, up from 500 acres last year. Satellite images from defense intelligence firm IHS Jane’s also show that China has begun construction of an airstrip on one of the new artificial islands.

Manila’s challenge of China’s claims through a United Nations’ tribunal argues that the nine-dash line China uses has no legal basis. Beijing has said it “will neither accept nor participate” in U.N. arbitration.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) speaks with U.S. State Secretary John Kerry (R), through a translator, during a lunch banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing November 12, 2014. REUTERS/Greg Baker/Pool

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will leave China "in absolutely no doubt" about Washington's commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea when he visits Beijing this weekend, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday.

Setting the scene for what could be contentious encounters with Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, the official said Kerry would warn that China's land-reclamation work in contested waters could have negative consequences for regional stability - and for relations with the United States.

On Tuesday, a U.S. official said the Pentagon was considering sending military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation around rapidly growing Chinese-made artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.

China's Foreign Ministry responded by saying that Beijing was "extremely concerned" and demanded clarification.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear told a Senate hearing the United States had right of passage in areas claimed by China. "We are actively assessing the military implications of land reclamation and are committed to taking effective and appropriate action," he said, but gave no details.

The senior State Department official said "the question about what the U.S Navy does or doesn’t do is one that the Chinese are free to pose" to Kerry in Beijing, where he is due on Saturday for meetings with civilian and military leaders.

Kerry's trip is intended to prepare for the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue next month in Washington and Xi's expected visit to Washington in September. But growing strategic rivalry rather than cooperation look set to dominate.

China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday that freedom of navigation did not mean that foreign military ships and aircraft can enter another country's territorial waters or airspace at will.

"We demand the relevant side talks and acts cautiously and does not take any actions that are risky or provocative to maintain regional peace and stability," she said.

The State Department official dismissed the idea that constructing islands out of half-submerged reefs gave China any right to territorial claims.

Ultimately no matter how much sand China piles on top of a submerged reef or shoal ... it is not enhancing its territorial claim. You can’t build sovereignty," he said.

"He (Kerry) will leave his Chinese interlocutors in absolutely no doubt that the United States remains committed to maintaining freedom of navigation and to exercise our legitimate rights as pertaining to over flight and movement on the high seas."

He said Kerry would "reinforce ... the very negative consequences to China's image and China’s relationship with its neighbors on regional stability and potentially on the U.S.- China relationship from their large-scale reclamation efforts and the behavior generally in the South China Sea."

Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

Last month, the U.S. military commander for Asia, Admiral Samuel Locklear, said China could eventually deploy radar and missile systems on the islands it is building in the Spratly archipelago that could be used to enforce an exclusion zone should it move to declare one.

The U.S. official who spoke on Tuesday said U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter had requested options that include sending aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the reefs China has been building up.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced a strategic shift toward Asia in 2011 in response to growing Chinese power and influence, but critics have questioned his commitment to this "rebalance" given U.S. security distractions elsewhere in the world and stretched resources.

News of the possibly tougher U.S. stance came as the key economic pillar of the rebalance suffered a blow at the hands of Obama's Democrats in the U.S. Senate, who blocked debate on a bill that would have smoothed the path for a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

Failure to clinch an agreement could damage Washington's leadership image in Asia, where China has been forging ahead with a new Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) seen as a challenge to U.S. global financial leadership.

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