US, China in East Sea scrap

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Analysts say China's upping the ante could have serious repercussions

The simmering East Sea (also known as South China Sea) dispute entered international waters with the US and China lambasting each other for provocative moves and analysts warning of a spillover into military aggression.

In a statement on August 3, the US State Department said it was concerned by the increase in tensions in the region and was "monitoring the situation closely."

In yet another move that analysts say exacerbated the East Sea tension, the Chinese Central Military Commission on July 19 decided to formally establish a "military command" of the so-called "Sansha City," based on Phu Lam (Woody) Island in the Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago. Two days later the Chinese side held an election for the first tenure of the people's congress of the so-called "Sansha City."

Vietnam has vehemently protested all these moves, arguing that they are serious violations of its sovereignty and jurisdiction and are illegal according to international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The US State Department statement said: "China's upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region."

A day after the statement was released China summoned the chargé d'affaires of the US embassy in Beijing, Robert S. Wang, to reject the statement.

Chinese assistant foreign minister Zhang Kunsheng said the US statement "deliberately confounded right and wrong and sent a seriously wrong signal" and requested that the US correct itself, according to a statement issued by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In another statement on the same day, spokesperson Qin Gang said "people cannot help but question the true intention of the US side.

"Why has the United States chosen to speak out all of a sudden to stir up trouble at a time when countries concerned in the region are stepping up dialogue and communication in an effort to resolve disputes and calm the situation?" he said.

The statement did not refer directly to US concerns mentioned in the August 3 statement about recent developments including "an uptick in confrontational rhetoric, disagreements over resource exploitation, coercive economic actions, and the incidents around the Scarborough Reef, including the use of barriers to deny access."

Reuters cited a commentary in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper People's Daily as saying that the US was "meddling" in the region and that "we are entirely entitled to shout at the United States, 'Shut up'."

Analysts said the diplomatic brawl between the US and China reflected the worsening situation in the East Sea which is believed to be rich in oil and natural resources and also part of important shipping lines.

Mohan Malik, a security analyst with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, warned that the dispute could escalate into an armed conflict soon. He told Vietweek via email that China had undertaken a number of provocative measures in recent months that have resulted in a "vicious action-reaction cycle" for regional countries.

"The "˜divide and conquer' strategy will see the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) acting more aggressively if regional countries and the United States voice its opposition and take counter-measures," he said.

"As a rising power, China wants to define limits to what the US and its smaller, weaker neighbors should or should not do. Beijing wants its preponderant power - not treaties, laws and norms - to determine the state of relations between China and its Asian neighbors," he said.

Malik said Beijing is pursuing "gunboat diplomacy" and has undertaken several provocative measures in recent months with the Chinese navy adopting "People's War" tactics by dispatching hundreds of so-called "fishing boats" armed with serving and retired PLAN sailors.

"The phrase "˜killing the chicken (Philippines) to scare the monkey (Vietnam)' would dictate that there is a stronger possibility of some form of military action against the Philippines in the near future."

The US has so far maintained it will play a neutral role in the East Sea dispute. It has announced a "pivot" toward the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region. Analysts said this is an effort to allay concerns of some ASEAN members as China flexes its economic and military muscle.

Analysts said that ever since Washington announced its "rebalancing," with the Pentagon announcing in June that it would station 60 percent of its navy in the Pacific by 2020, Chinese strategists have been casting about for how to respond.

"To be sure, China is well aware that its assertiveness is not well received in East Asia, and tends to lead smaller nations to tilt to the US to balance China," said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US government strategist.

"But Beijing seems to be calculating that despite the more robust US military posture in the region, China can throw its weight around and the US response will be limited to diplomatic reprimand," he said.

"Beijing seems to be betting that the US will not intervene militarily if there is a naval skirmish between China and Vietnam or the Philippines in the South China Sea."

STAMP OF AUTHENTICITY?

An official in the central city of Da Nang is calling for help from experts in studying six stamps, believed to originate from Taiwan, which show a map of China without the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes.

Nguyen Van Anh, deputy director of the Da Nang Environmental Engineering Center, said the stamps could possibly have been issued in Taiwan in 1957 and belong to the collection called Chiang Kai-shek Mainland Restoration.

He said they were in a stamp album that he found in 1975 at the house of an official working for the US-backed government in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

The official had fled as the Vietnam War was ending with the US withdrawing from the country, Anh said.

"I don't have enough expertise to evaluate the stamps' historical value, so I want to ask for help (from experts) via Thanh Nien. If they are truly materials that can benefit the country in the current situation, I'm willing to give them to the government," he said.

By Ngoc Bi Vu Phuong Thao, Thanh Nien News

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US Navy destroyer USS Chafee sails about 241km (150 miles) north of the island of Oahu during the RIMPAC Naval exercises off Hawaii July 18. "By 2020 the navy will reposture its forces from today's roughly 50-50 split from the Pacific and Atlantic to a 60-40 split in those oceans," US Defense Secretary Panetta told an annual Asia security summit in Singapore in June this year. Photo: Reuters

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