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South China Sea: a decades-long source of tension
by Staff Writers
Bandar Seri Begawan (AFP) April 24, 2013


Top US general reminds China of commitment to Japan
Beijing (AFP) April 24, 2013 - The top US military officer told China's leaders on Wednesday that Washington is committed to defending Japan, as Beijing and Tokyo engage in intensified rhetoric over a territorial row.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is visiting China just as the dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea is again heating up.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed Tuesday to "expel by force" any Chinese landing on the islands, which are administered by Japan as the Senkakus but also claimed by China as the Diaoyus.

His statement came after a flotilla of eight Chinese government vessels sailed into the disputed waters, the biggest number to do so in one day since Tokyo's nationalisation of some of the islands in September.

"In the case of Japan, I was careful to remind them (China's senior leaders) that the US has certain treaty obligations with Japan, that we would honour," Dempsey told reporters in Beijing.

US officials have said that while Washington takes no side in the dispute itself, the islands are under Japan's control and thus protected under the US security treaty with Tokyo.

Dempsey also expressed concern that rhetoric between China and Japan over the rival claims is increasing the risk that the situation could spin out of control and lead to clashes.

"I think the heightened risk is a function of heightened rhetoric that could produce emotional outcomes at the tactical level, that could frankly get away from the control of the central level," he said.

A group of Japanese nationalists said Tuesday it had sent nine ships to the area around the islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan.

Dempsey said at a joint press conference Monday with Fang Fenghui, the chief of the People's Liberation Army general staff, that Washington's aim was "to be a stabilising influence in the region".

China appeared to single out the US in a military white paper last week, saying "certain efforts" to enhance military deployment in Asia "are not conducive to the upholding of peace and stability in the region".

The US is engaged in a "pivot" to Asia after years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"A fair share of the questions that were discussed in my meetings with senior leaders had to do with our rebalance to the Pacific, and seeking greater clarity on what we mean by it," Dempsey said.

"It is a strategic imperative for us over time to rebalance to the Pacific, because that's where future trends are taking us," he said.

Dempsey met new Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday, with the state Xinhua news agency reporting that Xi called for the two countries as well as their militaries to foster deeper trust.

Competing claims to the South China Sea have for decades been a source of tension in the region.

China's increasing assertiveness in staking its claim in recent years has caused concern for neighbouring countries, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.

The South China Sea issue will be a top priority for Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) leaders during their two-day summit in Brunei beginning on Wednesday. Below are key facts on the sea and the competing claims:

GEOGRAPHY

The South China Sea covers more than 3 million square kilometres (1.16 million square miles) on the western edge of the Pacific, with China and Taiwan to the north, the Philippines to the east, Borneo island to the south, and Vietnam to the west.

It contains hundreds of small islands, islets and rocks, most of which are uninhabited. The Paracel and Spratly chains contain the biggest islands.

SIGNIFICANCE

The sea is the main maritime link between the Pacific and Indian oceans, giving it enormous trade and military value. Its shipping lanes connect East Asia with Europe and the Middle East.

Major unexploited oil and gas deposits are believed to lie under the seabed.

The sea is home to some of world's biggest coral reefs and, with marine life being depleted close to coasts, it is important as a source of fish to feed growing populations.

CLAIMANTS

China and Taiwan both claim nearly all of the sea, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei each have often overlapping claims to parts of it.

China's claim is based on a historical map of "nine dashes" that approaches the coast of other countries.

NAME

Beijing and most other countries know it as the South China Sea. Hanoi calls it the East Sea and Manila officially refers to it as the West Philippine Sea.

OCCUPATION/CONTROL

China has held all of the Paracel islands since a conflict with South Vietnam in 1974 that left 53 Vietnamese military personnel dead.

Vietnam is believed to occupy or control more than 20 of the Spratly islands and reefs, the most of any claimant.

Taiwan has a garrison controlled by its coastguard on Itu Aba island, which is called Taiping in Chinese and is the largest in the Spratlys.

The Philippines occupies nine of the Spratlys, including Thitu island, the second largest in the area. The Philippines has a military presence and civilians living on Thitu, which it calls Pagasa.

China occupies at least seven of the Spratlys including Johnson Reef, which it gained after a naval battle with Vietnam in 1988.

Malaysia occupies three of the Spratlys. The most significant presence is on Swallow Reef, called Layang Layang Island in Malaysia, where it has a naval post and a diving resort.

Brunei does not occupy any land formation but claims a submerged reef and a submerged bank in the Spratlys.

TENSIONS -- CHINA/VIETNAM

Aside from the 1974 battle for the Paracels, the only other major conflict occurred when Vietnam and China fought a naval battle on Johnson Reef in the Spratlys in 1988 that left 70 Vietnamese military personnel dead.

However, Chinese naval vessels have fired at other times on Vietnamese fishing boats in the area.

In June last year, Vietnam passed a law proclaiming its jurisdiction over all of the Paracel and Spratly islands, triggering Chinese protests.

At about the same time China announced it had created a new city, Sansha, on one of the Paracel islands, which would administer Chinese rule over its South China Sea domain.

TENSIONS -- CHINA/PHILIPPINES

In 1995, China began building structures on Mischief Reef, within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Tensions between the two nations started to rise in 2011 when Chinese vessels harassed a Philippine-chartered gas exploration vessel at Reed Bank.

The Philippines then accused the Chinese of a pattern of intimidation, including firing warning shots at Filipino fishermen and laying buoys around Philippine-claimed islets.

A stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels that began in April last year at Scarborough Shoal further inflamed tensions. The Philippines says China has since "occupied" the shoal, keeping vessels there.

In January this year the Philippines asked a United Nations tribunal to rule that China's claims to the sea were invalid. China refused to participate in the legal proceedings, which could take years to complete.

DIPLOMACY

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China adopted a non-binding "declaration of conduct" in 2002 to discourage hostile acts.

But attempts to turn it into a legally binding "code of conduct" have failed.

The dispute has created divisions within ASEAN. A meeting of foreign ministers last year ended for the first time in the bloc's history without a joint statement because of infighting over the issue.

Meeting host Cambodia, a China ally, rejected a Philippine push for the statement to take a harder line against the Chinese.

The Philippines has said it will again push at the Brunei summit for a code of conduct to be signed as soon as possible.

* Data drawn from AFP's archives, International Crisis Group reports and www.globalsecurity.org.

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SUPERPOWERS
Top US general reminds China of commitment to Japan
Beijing (AFP) April 24, 2013
The top US military officer told China's leaders on Wednesday that Washington is committed to defending Japan, as Beijing and Tokyo engage in intensified rhetoric over a territorial row. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is visiting China just as the dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea is again heating up. Japanese ... read more


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