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Philippines' Duterte open to territory-row talks with China
by Staff Writers
Davao, Philippines (AFP) May 10, 2016

US warship sails by South China Sea reef, irking Beijing
Beijing (AFP) May 10, 2016 - The US on Tuesday sailed a warship close to a disputed South China Sea reef Beijing has built up into an artificial island, officials said, prompting China to express "dissatisfaction and opposition".

Guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence navigated within 12 nautical miles of the Fiery Cross Reef, occupied by China and also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines, the Pentagon said.

"This operation challenged attempts by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam to restrict navigation rights around the features they claim," Pentagon spokesman Commander Bill Urban said in a statement.

"Because the Philippines' maritime claims in relation to South China Sea features do not purport to restrict the exercise of navigation rights and freedoms under the law of the sea by the United States and others, they were not challenged during this operation," he added.

It is Washington's third "freedom of navigation" operation in the disputed waters launched in recent months after China built several artificial islands as it asserts claims to nearly all the sea.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang confirmed the operation on Tuesday, saying the warship "illegally entered waters near the relevant reefs of China's Nansha islands without the permission of the Chinese government".

Nansha is China's name for the Spratly Islands, where Fiery Cross Reef lies.

Authorities monitored the passage, Lu told a regular briefing.

"China hereby expresses dissatisfaction and opposition," Lu said, adding: "I want to stress that the action taken by the US has threatened (the) security, interests and sovereignty of China."

Beijing has significantly expanded Fiery Cross -- which is around 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) from its island province of Hainan -- since 2014, building a 3,000-metre (10,000 foot) runway there.

It landed an air force plane on the reef last month and last week sent military singer Song Zuying to serenade hundreds of troops and construction workers there.

China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, even waters close to Southeast Asian neighbours including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei who have competing claims.

Washington regularly accuses Beijing of militarising the South China Sea, saying it has built runways and deployed missiles to islands there.

Beijing denies the accusations and says US patrols have ramped up tensions.

The sail-by comes ahead of a ruling by an international tribunal on a case brought by the Philippines over the issue.

"These excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention in that they purport to restrict the navigation rights that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise," Urban said.

Philippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte is willing to talk with China over a highly sensitive territorial dispute in the South China Sea, his spokesman said Tuesday, in a significant reversal of the incumbent's stance.

Duterte, who won Monday's election in a landslide, is also willing to form partnerships with China to extract gas and oil deposits that are believed to be in the sea, as well as explore joint fishing management systems, Peter Lavina said.

"This is the difference between the current and the Duterte administrations, the mayor is open to bilateral talks with China," Lavina told reporters in Davao, the major southern city that Duterte has ruled as mayor for most of the past two decades.

China and the Philippines, under President Benigno Aquino, have endured steadily worsening relations in recent years as they sparred over joint claims to parts of the South China Sea, one of the world's most strategically important waterways.

China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations.

To enforce its claims, China has built contested reefs into artificial islands, some topped with military-capable airstrips.

China also in 2012 took control of Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing area within the Philippines' economic exclusive zone.

The Philippines, with a tiny military compared with China, has responded by signing a new defence pact with the United States and filing a legal challenge with a United Nations tribunal asking it to rule the Chinese claims to most of the sea are invalid.

It has also sought to raise the issue at multilateral events such as summits of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

China has reacted furiously to Aquino's tactics, demanding that the Philippines negotiate directly but also insisting that it will never give up any of the territory.

Aquino has refused to hold direct talks, fearing the better resourced and more powerful China would have an advantage. He has also said there is no point in talking with China if it insists there is nothing to negotiate.

Lavina said Duterte would continue with the UN case. A verdict is expected soon after Duterte is sworn into office on June 30.

He also sought to downplay a Duterte comment on the campaign trail that he would use a jet ski to reach a disputed island occupied by China to stake the Philippine claim.

"He jokingly said that if we win that case and China will not respect, he will use a jet ski," Lavina said.

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