BEIJING – A look at recent developments in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a weekly look at the latest developments in the South China Sea, the location of several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
CHINA, SE ASIAN NAVIES STAGE COMPUTER-SIMULATED DRILLS
The navies of China and Southeast Asian nations staged their first computer-simulated drills aimed at jointly responding to emergencies and building trust.
Singapore’s navy hosted the two-day exercises that ended Friday at a training center in Changi naval base, where officers coordinated their force deployments and helicopter landings on navy ships. They monitored developments on three giant screens, including one showing the location of a simulated collision between an oil tanker, which supposedly caught fire, and a passenger ship that sank and scattered people in the high seas.
Col. Lim Yu Chuan of Singapore’s navy said it was a successful prelude to actual maneuvers at sea that are planned for October in China.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the planned naval exercises in China and the computer-simulated drills in Singapore were a starting point in efforts to elevate Beijing’s security relations with Southeast Asia.
“The two sides will further expand our defense exchange and security affairs cooperation in a joint effort to meet security challenges and uphold regional stability,” Wang told a news conference Thursday.
Aside from China and Taiwan, ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the disputed region. In the bloodiest confrontations, China clashed with Vietnamese forces in the Paracel Islands in 1974, leaving 74 South Vietnamese dead. Another clash in 1988 in the Spratlys, the South China Sea’s most contested region, left more than 60 Vietnamese sailors dead.
CHINA’S TOP DIPLOMAT HAILS CODE OF CONDUCT DRAFT
China’s top diplomat is calling an initial draft of a proposed pact with Southeast Asia to prevent conflict in the South China Sea a “breakthrough,” and says talks can accelerate without outside interference.
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes four rival claimants to territories in the sea, have been holding sporadic talks for years on a “code of conduct,” a set of regional norms and rules aimed at preventing a shooting war in the disputed waters.
Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan announced last week at the start of an annual meeting of top diplomats from China and the 10-nation ASEAN bloc that both sides have agreed on an initial draft that will be the basis of future negotiations. He called the development a “milestone.”
“This is good news,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the ASEAN ministers. “This is a breakthrough for the COC (code of conduct) negotiation.”
Despite the development, “some concerns” were raised “on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the ASEAN ministers said, reflecting divisions on the issue.
Vietnam, for one, has been vocal in expressing concerns over China’s transformation of seven disputed reefs into man-made islands that now resemble small cities armed with weapons systems.
PHILIPPINES CONCERNED ABOUT CHINESE RADIO WARNINGS
The Philippines has expressed concern to China over an increasing number of Chinese radio messages warning Philippine aircraft and ships to stay away from newly fortified islands and other territories in the South China Sea claimed by both countries.
A Philippine government report seen by The Associated Press showed that in the second half of last year, Philippine military aircraft received Chinese radio warnings at least 46 times while patrolling near artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago.
The Chinese radio messages were “meant to step up their tactics to our pilots conducting maritime air surveillance in the West Philippine Sea,” the report said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
Philippine officials have raised their concern twice over the radio transmissions, including in a meeting with Chinese counterparts in Manila earlier this year that focused on the Asian countries’ long-unresolved territorial disputes, according to two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The messages used to originate from Chinese coast guard ships in past years but military officials suspect transmissions now are also being sent from the Beijing-held artificial islands, where far more powerful communications and surveillance equipment has been installed along with weapons such as surface-to-air missiles.