By Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)
WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Friday warned China against further moves to tighten control over a disputed section of the South China Sea, as tensions rose in the flash point region.
In a statement, the State Department cautioned China about its addition of a military garrison and civilian officials near the contested Scarborough Reef and its use of barriers to deny access to foreign ships.
These moves “run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region,” said the statement, issued early Friday morning and attributed to Patrick Ventrell, the acting deputy spokesman.
Six countries have complex competing claims to the region’s water and islands, which are rich in fish, oil and gas and other resources.
China’s recent moves over the Scarborough Reef have ruffled feathers in several nations, including Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines. There also have been reports that China is preparing to invite oil company bids for energy exploration in the area.
Countries in the region have been trying to work out a method for peacefully arbitrating their claims through a leading regional body, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and have urged states not to take any provocative actions.
The U.S. statement appeared to be a sign to Southeast Asian countries that the administration continues its close watch on developments in the region. But one analyst cautioned that by singling out China at a time when several nations have been pushing claims, the Obama administration may confirm Chinese fears that it is strengthening security ties in Southeast Asia to limit the expansion of Chinese power.
“It’s very likely that China will read this as unnecessary, and confirming its concerns that the U.S. is actively seeking to line up with Southeast Asia against it,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China specialist at the Brookings Institution and a former Clinton administration official.
Administration officials announced last year that they were shifting their foreign policy attention more to East Asia and have announced a series of steps to reinforce security ties with Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia and other countries.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
US slams China garrison in disputed Spratlys
By Jaime Laude
The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines – China’s behavior in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) – particularly its establishment of a military garrison in the Spratlys – is not helping ease tensions in the region, according to the US State Department.
“We are concerned by the increase in tensions in the South China Sea and are monitoring the situation closely,” US State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement.
“In particular, China’s upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic effort to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region,” he said.
Ventrell, without directly referring to China, cited “increased confrontational rhetoric,” disagreements over resource exploitation, coercive economic actions, and troubling incidents around Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, citing latest monitoring reports, said that aside from keeping its two vessels in Panatag Shoal – a rock formation only 124 nautical miles from Zambales province in Central Luzon – China has also placed buoys and rope barriers at the entrance of the shoal’s lagoon.
He said that while the US is not taking any position on the dispute and that it has no territorial ambitions in the West Philippine Sea, it is in its interest as a Pacific nation to help keep stability in the area and ensure freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce.
He said the US is urging all parties to take steps to lower tensions in keeping with the 1992 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Declaration on the South China Sea and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
“We strongly support ASEAN’s efforts to build consensus on a principles-based mechanism for managing and preventing disputes. We encourage ASEAN and China to make meaningful progress toward finalizing a comprehensive code of conduct in order to establish rules and clear procedures for peacefully addressing disagreements,” Ventrell said.
“We also encourage relevant parties to explore new cooperative arrangements for managing the responsible exploitation of resources in the South China Sea,” he said.
China has repeatedly claimed it is working for a peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes, but only through bilateral negotiations and not through multi-party dialogues.
The US has rallied behind Southeast Asian nations, expanding military ties with the Philippines and Vietnam.
President Barack Obama has decided to send Marines to Australia in a further show of US power in Asia.
The US Senate approved a resolution late Thursday that “strongly urges” all regional nations to exercise self-restraint and to refrain from permanently inhabiting points in the South China Sea until a code of conduct is reached.
The resolution, sponsored by senators from both parties, declared that the US was committed “to assist the nations of Southeast Asia to remain strong and independent.”
At the US House of Representatives, Rep. Eni Faleomavaega has introduced a bill calling for peaceful and collaborative resolution of maritime territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea and its environs and other maritime areas adjacent to the East Asian mainland, a press statement from his office said.
Democrat Faleomavaega has been representing the territory of American Samoa in the US Congress since 1989 and is the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.
Earlier this year, Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a resolution also calling for a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute.
“We re-introduced this legislation as a bill, rather than a resolution, to show how serious this matter is to us,” said Faleomavaega, original co-sponsor of Ros-Lehtinen’s resolution.
He said the bill was in response to protracted tension in the region.
“China continues to coerce and intimidate its neighbors, and I have grave concerns about China’s expansive territorial claims, which have no basis in international law,” he said in a statement on Friday.
He said China’s establishment of a prefecture-level government in the city of Sansha to oversee areas claimed by Beijing was a provocative action.
“I call upon China to work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve these disputes without coercion, threat, or intimidation and, above all, without the use of force,” he said.
China also has separate disputes with US ally Japan in the East China Sea, an issue discussed by Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto on a visit Friday to Washington.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, addressing a joint news conference with Morimoto, voiced hope for further progress in a code of conduct on the South China Sea.
“The last thing we want is to have direct confrontation in the South China Sea with regards to jurisdictional issues,” Panetta said.
“Those should be resolved peacefully, and they should be resolved pursuant to a code of conduct. And the United States will do whatever we can to work with Japan and others to ensure that that is the approach we take,” he said. – With Lito Katigbak, Pia Lee-Brago