Monday, June 29, 2015

• Japan's Presence in South China Sea Is 'Unacceptable,' China Says by ERIC BACULINAO

BEIJING — U.S. patrols in the disputed South China Sea will be permitted but a Japanese military presence there is "unacceptable," according to a Chinese general.

"The United States used to have military bases in Southeast Asia, like in the Philippines and even in Vietnam, and they have military cooperation with Singapore, so American military presence in the South China Sea is acceptable to China," said Major General Zhu Chenghu, a professor of strategic studies at China's National Defense University. Zhu is known for his hawkish views towards the United States.

"As for the Japanese military presence, it is very difficult for the Chinese people and the Chinese government to accept it," he added.

China has been building artificial islands in the Spratlys — which are also known as the Nansha Islands.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, a strategic maritime lane with rich fishing grounds and potentially huge oil deposits.

On Friday, the State Department's number two diplomat compared China's behavior in pursuit of territory in the South China Sea to that of Russia in eastern Ukraine.

The weekend forum of policy scholars was attended by Stephen Hadley, who was national security advisor to President George W. Bush, and retired U.S. Navy Admiral Gary Roughhead. The South China Sea disputes proved to be among the most contentious of the global strategic issues debated.

Beijing's decision not to announce the exact coordinates of its expansive maritime claims — which has drawn criticism from Washington —is "because China has not negotiated with neighbors yet," Zhu said. He suggested the "strategic ambiguity" would encourage diplomatic resolution.

U.S. defense officials last month revealed that China had put two large artillery vehicles on one of the artificial islands.

In April, the Philippines released aerial photographs of China's "massive" construction project in the Spratly islands and warned of its potential impact on regional stability as well as on coral reefs

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has delivered a blunt warning to China that Australia "deplores" any unilateral action that would alter the status quo in the South China Sea, a clear reference to China's ambitious reclamation and island-building projects that are designed to position its military hardware in the disputed Spratly Islands chain.

Mr Abbott and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking in Singapore, announced plans for deeper trade links through a review of the current free trade agreement, closer work on foreign policy and stronger education ties.

An annual leaders' meeting between the two nations will be introduced and a stronger defence relationship will see more Singaporean armed forces training in Australia.

 Tony Abbott and his Singaporean counterpart, Lee Hsien Loong, inspect an honour guard during a welcome ceremony on Mr Abbott's two-day visit to Singapore. Photo: Reuters

The pair also said Australia and Singapore were working closely together and exchanging intelligence and other information about the threat posed by Islamic State.

In recent weeks, Australia has joined the United States and other nations in hardening their language about the South China Sea.

Concerns about China and the South China Sea has led the Abbott government to tighten relations with most major countries in the region including the US, Japan, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and now Singapore.

This trip to Singapore is the latest in Tony Abbott's program to shore up relations with all the nations affected by the South China Sea issue. Photo: Joseph Nair

Earlier this month, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews signalled at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore that Australia could be prepared to join the US and other countries in pushing back against China's military build-up in the area.

Mr Andrews said at the time that Australia had a "legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability ... unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation" in the region.

On Monday, Mr Abbott said, in arguably his strongest language to date on the subject, that "on the South China Sea, obviously there are issues".

"Like Singapore, Australia has no ... we take no side in the territorial disputes but we certainly deplore any unilateral alteration of the status quo. We think it should be resolved peacefully and, like Singapore, we uphold freedom of navigation on the sea and in the air," he said.

"We can focus on the South China Sea if we wish and think of the problems, but frankly, I'd rather look at the habits of co-operation which are developing in our region."

"I would rather focus on all the many things that are going right."

Prime Minister Lee acknowledged concern was widespread in the region about the issue, with both claimant states and nations that use the trade routes through the South China and East China seas watching the issue closely.

Those nations, which include the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, had an interest in the stability and security of the Asia-Pacific region, Mr Lee said.

"So we cannot take sides on the specific issues, but I think we have a vested interest in leaning towards peaceful management and resolution of these items – that is the basis on which Singapore and Australia work together and talk about these subjects," he said.

The missing piece in the regional puzzle has been Indonesia, as a new Indonesian President shows little interest in regional security and bilateral relations with Australia have faltered.

Former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa told a Canberra forum on Monday that Indonesia had played a crucial role in expanding the East Asia Summit to include Australia and the US, in part, to balance the position of rising China.

But he said he was concerned that the Joko Widodo administration had relinquished Indonesia's leadership role on regional questions including the South China Sea.

"I worry a little bit … there is a sense of a vacuum of leadership in the region ... I hope Indonesian will step up to the plate," he said.

The additional military training with the Singaporean army and airforce, at bases around Australia, will ramp up next year.