China wants naval drills with Asean in S. China Sea
BEIJING—China’s defense minister said on Friday he was willing to hold joint drills in the disputed South China Sea with Southeast Asian countries, covering accidental encounters and search and rescue, striking a conciliatory tone over an increasingly tense spat.
China’s relations with several Southeast Asian countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, have been strained over Beijing’s increasingly assertive tone in pushing territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.
China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes every year.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan told his counterparts from all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) at the start of an informal summit in Beijing that all needed to push for the “correct” development of ties.
Chang said the biggest common need was to maintain stability.
In a statement carried by the defense ministry, Chang was cited as saying that all sides should manage and control the risks from their disputes.
China is willing to hold joint exercises with Asean nations next year in the South China Sea on rules about accidental encounters at sea, search and rescue and disaster relief, the statement added, without details.
China stepped up the creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea last year, drawing strong criticism from Washington.
Media reports say the United States has decided to conduct freedom-of-navigation operations inside 12 nautical-mile limits that China claims around islands built on reefs in the Spratly archipelago.
China denies it has militarized the South China Sea, saying construction work is mostly for civilian purposes, and has warned that Beijing would not stand for violations of its territorial waters in the name of freedom of navigation.
The United States says, under international law, that building up artificial islands on previously submerged reefs does not entitle a country to claim a territorial limit and that it is vital to maintain freedom of navigation.
Chang, speaking in front of reporters, said there were other areas to work together on, too.
“At present the regional situation is generally stable, but there are obvious downward economic pressures and nontraditional security challenges are increasing,” he said, pointing to the threat from terror groups.
“Forces from outside the region are using the Internet, social media and other means to carry out incitements against countries in this region, threatening social stability,” Chang said.
China says it faces a threat from Islamist militants in its far western region of Xinjiang, who it says often use the Internet to spread propaganda, link up with groups outside of China and encourage attacks.
US Navy challenge
The meeting with Asean defense ministers marks the first time China has hosted such a conference and takes place as expectations grow that the US Navy will directly challenge Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea.
The informal meeting will be followed by the Xiangshan Forum, at which analysts, military leaders and others from around the globe will discuss Asian-Pacific security, maritime issues and antiterrorism.
“China wants to use these forums to explain China’s policies and improve China’s security image,” said regional security expert Li Mingjiang of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
Since 2013, China has accelerated the construction of new islands atop reefs and atolls in the South China Sea and is adding buildings and airstrips in apparent attempts to boost its sovereignty claims to the territory.
PH backs US move
Unnamed Pentagon officials said last week the US Navy may soon receive approval to sail a ship inside the 12-nautical mile (21-kilometer) territorial limit surrounding China’s man-made islands, reported the Navy Times, which is closely affiliated with the US Navy. The Philippines expressed support for such a move.
Sailing within boundary would mark the first time the US has directly challenged China’s territorial claims since 2012 and reinforce Washington’s assertion that land reclamation does not add sovereign territory.
The US and its allies, including the Philippines, say the newly made islands threaten stability in an increasingly militarized region.
China has also sparred with Vietnam over the Paracel island group, leading to a confrontation last year when Beijing moved a massive oil drilling platform into contested waters.
On Thursday, Vietnam accused China of sinking one of its fishing boats near the disputed islands. The incident was apparently motivated by a desire to steal the ship’s catch of fish and put it out of commission.
There was no evidence any Chinese government ships were involved, although Beijing’s aggressive actions are believed to embolden Chinese fishermen in the area.
China’s defense ministry has said the Asean gathering in Beijing is to “promote strategic trust and pragmatic cooperation.”
Li said China realized its defense relations with its neighbors were weak and wanted to refurbish its image. Li said talks would likely steer clear of contentious issues and focus on nontraditional security cooperation.
“Because the meeting is in Beijing, it would be hard for any country to confront China over the South China Sea,” Li said. “There’s also a lack of solidarity among Asean countries over the issue.”
China vastly expanded the scope of the Xiangshan Forum last year, making it an annual event and boosting participation to more than 300 defense officials and academics from 47 countries.
With the world’s second-largest defense budget, China’s military—especially its Navy—is gathering formidable capabilities.
It will soon deploy its first aircraft carrier and is rapidly adding advanced destroyers, missile cruisers and nuclear submarines. A massive military parade in Beijing last month showcased new missiles permitting China to hit targets—including US Navy ships and bases—throughout the region.
Along with claiming almost all of the South China Sea’s island groups, China is dueling with Japan an uninhabited chain of islands north of Taiwan, and declared an air defense zone that would theoretically give it control of aviation over much of the East China Sea.
Analysts believe China is now considering declaring a similar zone over the South China Sea. Associated Press
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