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Tensions rise on South China Sea dispute


Tom Allard
November 17, 2011

TENSIONS over the oil-rich and strategically important South China Sea escalated yesterday, as Chinese state media accused the US and the Philippines of planning a ”grab” for its resources and a senior foreign ministry official said it did not want the issue discussed at this week’s East Asia Summit in Bali.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday in Manila that the US ”will certainly expect and participate in very open and frank discussions” on the topic at the summit, which will be attended by US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The looming confrontation over the South China Sea threatens to overshadow the East Asia Summit, a grouping of nations based on the south-east Asian countries of ASEAN that has emerged as the prime forum for security and political discussions in the Asia-Pacific region.

The South China Sea is a potential flashpoint between the US and China as the two powers seek to assert their interests in Asia, the fastest-growing region in the world.

The US has leapt on nervousness among smaller Asian nations about China’s growing military might and bellicose diplomacy to reassert its long-standing role as an anchor of security in Asia, even as its economic importance wanes. Before Mrs Clinton’s visit to Manila and the East Asia Summit, which the US will attend for the first time, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said: ”Now that Obama is scheduled to appear at the ASEAN Summit, the Philippines will embrace the ‘golden chance’ to get back at China, again churning up the South China Sea.”

The Global Times, another Chinese government mouthpiece, said the Philippines, aided and abetted by the US, was intent on ”grabbing resources from Chinese water”. ”We hope the South China Sea will not be discussed at the East Asia Summit,” Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said.

Mrs Clinton yesterday signed a declaration with her Philippines counterpart, Albert del Rosario, aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald in Manila Bay, to boost defence co-operation between the two countries and calling for multilateral talks on the South China Sea.

The Philippines is one of six countries claiming part or all of an archipelago in the South China Sea known as the Spratly Islands, which are believed to lie above significant oil and gas reserves. The area is also of high strategic value as a vital sea lane for much of the world’s trade.

This year, Chinese and Philippines naval ships have had skirmishes with fishermen and other vessels each country believed had been encroaching on its territory.

While many of the claimants – which also include Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei – want multilateral talks to solve the dispute, China insists on one-on-one negotiations.

Burma is set to chair the 2014 ASEAN and East Asian summits after members said its political reforms meant it was now a suitable candidate for the role.

The US, Australia and other participants still have sanctions in place against Burma but have cautiously welcomed the release of political prisoners and other reform in a country that was run by a military junta for decades until elections this year.

ASEAN foreign ministers ”all recognize the important and significant developments taking place in [Burma]”, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said.



Obama seeks to hitch U.S. economy to Asian growth


By Laura MacInnis and Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON | Fri Nov 11, 2011 11:00am EST

(Reuters) – With Europe mired in crisis, President Barack Obama is launching a charm offensive this week to hitch the U.S. economy to growth opportunities in Asia that he hopes can help power the recovery he needs for re-election.

Obama, who was born in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, will host Asian leaders including Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in Honolulu this weekend to seek to improve trade ties across the Pacific.

He will then travel to Australia to announce plans to boost the U.S. military presence in the region and will be the first American president to attend the East Asia Summit in Bali. There, he will heap attention on the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia as well as India.

The campaign to cozy up to Asian powers large and small comes at a critical moment for the U.S. economy, whose recovery is at risk because of a spiraling debt crisis in Europe that dominated a G-20 leaders’ summit in France last week.

“To have this trip happen when you have nothing but crisis in Europe and nothing but opportunity in Asia, you couldn’t have more of a juxtaposition,” said Victor Cha, who advised President George W. Bush on Asian affairs.

Georgetown University professor Charles Kupchan said he expected the Asia swing to be “much more upbeat” than the trip to Cannes had been for Obama, whose re-election chances in November 2012 will hinge on his economic record.

Executives from companies such as Boeing Caterpillar, General Electric and Time Warner Cable will also attend the APEC summit to help Obama make the case that closer ties with Asia will help create U.S. jobs.

“When you look for rays of light, where is growth going to come from, one of the main answers is exports to Asia,” Kupchan said. “It is something that this president needs to focus on, particularly in an election season.”

Obama will not be able to leave the European financial crisis behind entirely. Asia-Pacific finance ministers meeting in Honolulu before the leaders’ summit fretted about Europe’s lack of strong action to deal with crises in Greece and Italy, and talked of ways to bolster their own economies to minimize potential spillover.


Obama will also seek to reassert the U.S. role as a Pacific power, shifting more of its budget-stretched military resources to Asia as it pulls out of Afghanistan and Iraq and worries less about security in Europe.

In Australia, he is set to announce an agreement for more than 2,000 Marines to train and do joint exercises from Darwin, a city with a large military presence on the country’s northern coast, according to an Obama administration official familiar with the plans. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

The cooperation deal is seen as a stepping stone to a more permanent presence for the United States in Australia, which could eventually see U.S. vessels stationed in Perth or nearby that could respond faster to regional threats or humanitarian emergencies than they could from Hawaii or California.

“This is part of a big push to put the United States back into the Asian game after a decade or so in which it has been preoccupied with the Middle East,” Kupchan said.

Obama is likely to avoid direct references to China when making the announcement, although the agreement is widely seen to be a way for the United States to act as a check on Chinese power and defuse possible conflicts over waterways and disputed islands.

“It is sending a very clear message that the United States is not ceding Asia diplomatically to China,” said Cha, now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Kupchan agreed, saying smaller and emerging powers in Asia “don’t want China stepping all over them because of its economic clout.” The United States provides a good military counterbalance that should not contradict its cooperative ties with Beijing so long as it is handled delicately, he said.

Asia has been a stated foreign policy priority for Obama since his first days in office, but wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the Middle East soon diverted much of his attention.

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