China: Don't interfere or provoke

Beijing warns 'external parties' off South China Sea issues ahead of East Asia Summit

A senior Chinese diplomat cautioned yesterday that the South China Sea dispute should not overshadow an upcoming regional summit and that external parties should not aggravate matters.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the East Asia Summit in Cambodia this week, Vice-Foreign Minister Fu Ying said: "We hope that countries from outside the region, in other words countries which are not China or Asean members, can have faith in us.

"If you want to help, then do it in a positive way, and do not interfere or provoke."

Besides, she added, the situation is under control. "As soon as this region is brought up, everyone thinks it's very dangerous, very turbulent, because of the South China Sea issue. In fact, over the past few years, China and the countries surrounding the South China Sea have successfully controlled the dispute."

China, represented by Premier Wen Jiabao, will instead focus on strengthening economic ties during its meetings with South-east Asian leaders.

"We need to focus on cooperation and development and send correct signals to the market," said Ms Fu.

China is locked in separate, long-running territorial disputes with several Asean members - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - over the resource-rich South China Sea.

Ms Fu's comments are seen as targeted at the United States, which some in China blame for egging

Vietnam and the Philippines to be more assertive in their maritime disputes with Beijing.

Concern over increased regional tension and greater US-China rivalry has risen as a newly re-elected President Barack Obama has made three South-east Asian countries - Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand - the destinations for his first foreign visits this week.

But Chinese analysts say they are unperturbed by his travel decisions. Said Professor Jin Canrong of Renmin University: "US ties with some Asean countries are not as strong as its relations with North-east Asian countries like Japan and South Korea. So it makes sense for him to come here."

Others believe that Mr Obama may have had little choice but to turn up for the East Asia Summit, which includes the 10 Asean members and China and the US, among others. Professor Liu Jiangyong of Tsinghua University said: "Since he had attended it last year, to miss the event (this year) could send a wrong signal that the US is not sincere enough."

While some analysts like Peking University's Zha Daojiong expect stronger rhetoric and more overt efforts to gain influence, they do not see the US and China butting heads on behalf of smaller countries, not least because of shared interests in continued regional stability.

Moreover, as Prof Jin pointed out, China has just seen a power transition. Its new leaders will be keen to avoid external troubles, the better to tackle pressing domestic problems such as a slowing economy and rising anger over corruption, he said.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg