Territorial spat not a problem with Asean: China

It hints that some countries are using issue to derail its ties with grouping

CHINA has insisted that escalating tension in the South China Sea territorial dispute is not a problem between the mainland and Asean nations as a whole.

In a late night statement last Saturday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry suggested instead that some countries, which it did not name, were trying to use the issue to derail Beijing's relationship with the South-east Asian grouping.

"The Chinese side is always opposed to one or two countries' attempts to use the South (China) Sea issue to harm the overall friendship and cooperation between China and Asean," the ministry's spokesman Hua Chunying said.

Beijing's response came hours after Asean's foreign ministers, who were meeting in Myanmar over the weekend, issued a joint statement expressing "serious concerns" over recent flare-ups in the South-east Asian maritime hub.

The Philippines' arrest of 11 Chinese fishermen for turtle- poaching, as well as China's placement of an oil rig near Vietnam - both incidents taking place in disputed waters - have stirred tensions in the past week, and piqued concerns within Asean over an increasingly assertive China.

But China has insisted that its oil rig move near the contested Paracels, which has sparked collisions between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels, was legitimate based on its U-shaped, nine-dash line that claims up to 90 per cent of the resource-rich South China Sea.

A Vietnamese media report yesterday said China also sent two groups of military aircraft, including fighter jets, to protect its oil rig. The Chinese planes were seen flying above Vietnamese ships at a height of about 800m to 1,000m, the Tuoi Tre newspaper reported on its website.

Chinese state media made no mention of the decision to send fighter jets to the area, though the official Xinhua news agency weighed in with a sharply worded commentary slamming the Vietnamese government.

"The Vietnamese side has framed up charges, blaming China for the row, hyping an outdated 'China threat' claim and stirring up waves in the already unpeaceful South China Sea," the Xinhua commentary said.

China faces overlapping sovereignty claims from four Asean nations - the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei - and Taiwan.

Observers believe China's oil rig move, besides being possibly prompted by Vietnamese-US development of natural gas fields near the Paracels, is also largely aimed as a warning against the United States and its allies in the region.

Beijing fears that its neighbours may have been emboldened to take a more provocative stand on territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas after US President Barack Obama's recent visit to the region, where he offered strong defence backing for the Philippines and Japan.

Last month, two US Navy ships also conducted six days of non-combat exercises with the Vietnamese military.

China has insisted that bilateral talks with the South China Sea claimants are the best way to resolve the issue. But Beijing has recently agreed to undertake multilateral negotiations with the Asean grouping on the proposed code of conduct aimed at managing territorial disputes and preventing armed conflict.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg