DISPUTE OVER ASIAN WATERS

Beijing rebukes Manila for occupying disputed shoal

CHINA'S Foreign Minister Wang Yi has told off the Philippines for its occupation of a disputed reef in the South China Sea, becoming the most senior Chinese official yet to weigh in on the row.

If a country takes provocative actions like using a ship to illegally occupy a shoal claimed by China, Beijing has every right to respond, he said, in a reference to the Philippines without naming it.

"If a certain claimant-state chooses confrontation, there is for sure no way out," Mr Wang said in response to a question at the World Peace Forum in Beijing.

Bilateral relations between China and the Philippines soured after a stand-off in the waters of the Scarborough Shoal last year which saw both sides withdrawing naval troops only to see China re-occupying the disputed area.

Tensions worsened after Manila sent soldiers and fresh supplies last Friday to a wrecked ship it has on the Second Thomas Shoal, called Ren'ai Jiao by the Chinese, to mark its turf.

Manila is also reportedly planning to give Japan and the United States greater access to its military bases so as to help shore up its defence against China.

Alluding to such actions, Mr Wang yesterday warned rivals against bolstering their "weakly grounded" claims in the South China Sea by roping in external powers, as this would be a "miscalculation". China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims in the resource-rich sea.

But even as he issued warnings, Mr Wang yesterday also stressed China's commitment to peace, a point also made by China's Vice-President Li Yuanchao when both spoke at the opening of the two-day event attended by diplomats and former heads of government.

Due in Brunei from Sunday to Tuesday for an Asean foreign ministers' meeting, Mr Wang proposed at the forum that rival South China Sea claimants shelve disputes and work on joint development.

Mr Li, making a keynote speech yesterday at the Tsinghua University, organiser of the event, made a case for China's love of peace.

He said Beijing has insisted on using negotiations to deal with differences over boundaries and maritime interests, settling border disputes with 12 neighbours.

China was also first to publicly declare that it would not be the first to use nuclear arms, he said.

Throughout its history, it has sought to "turn swords into ploughshares", he said, turning away from war to peaceful pursuits.

It is also in China's interest to have a peaceful and stable global environment, which was the basis for China's development in the last 30 years, he noted.

"In future, as China grows stronger, it will continue to follow the path of peace. China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion," he added.

Lauding Beijing's attempt to resolve South China Sea disputes through talks, Japan's former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, who attended the forum yesterday as a panellist, hoped such an approach can be applied to East China Sea spats too.

He drew flak in Japan on Wednesday, though, for conceding in an interview with Hong Kong's Phoenix News that sovereignty over the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku isles was indeed disputed - which Tokyo has denied. Asked again yesterday about China's claims over the isles at a panel discussion, he said simply: "I won't deny China's standpoint."

hoaili@sph.com.sg