China spurns arbitration as US joins Japan on sea stance

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China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Deputy Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, speaks during the fourth plenary session of the 12th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia Security Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore June 2, 2013. Photo: Reuters

China dismissed calls for arbitration to resolve disputes in Asian waters vital to world trade after the U.S. and Japan vowed to resist attempts to seize contested territory by force.

Qi Jianguo, deputy chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, told a forum in Singapore yesterday that Chinese patrols in disputed waters off its coasts were "totally legitimate." He spoke a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. "stands firmly against any coercive attempts to alter the status quo" in the seas.

The world's biggest economies have been unable to agree on rules for operating in the waters and resolving territorial disputes as China's neighbors grow more concerned over its military might. The tension adds to disagreements over cyber-espionage, Iran's weapons program and Syria's civil war that may be discussed when President Barack Obama meets Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California on June 7.

"China does seem to be in certain instances changing the status quo in its favor," said Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "If it's doing so through economic pressure and coercion and the use of government paramilitary vessels, the U.S. just doesn't have a good toolbox to use and try to respond to it."

Over the past year, China has taken effective control of a land feature near the Philippines and increased incursions into Japanese waters. The U.S. allies have relied on the Navy's Seventh Fleet to deter aggression in Asia-Pacific waters since World War II.

'Totally legitimate'

Qi said yesterday that a maritime dispute with the Philippines could be solved through "open-minded channels" instead of arbitration. A United Nation-backed panel set up after the Philippines brought the case to the UN in January may rule next month whether it has jurisdiction, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said on April 26.


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"We don't see any necessity to resort to an international tribunal," Qi told the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum yesterday. Patrols by Chinese warships and surveillance vessels "within our own territory" are "totally legitimate and uncontroversial," he said.

Philippine Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin, who sat on the same panel as Qi, said he hoped the UN arbitration panel would not hurt trade ties with China and would encourage Xi's government to "desist from undertaking unlawful acts that violate our territorial rights."

Exclusive zones

The lack of trust between China and the U.S. stemmed in part from different interpretations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, known as Unclos, Chinese Senior Colonel Zhou Bo said at a June 1 session with Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command.

While China opposes U.S. military patrols within its exclusive economic zone, an area stretching 200 nautical miles from land, Zhou said China had begun sending ships into the U.S. exclusive economic zone.

"We have sort of reciprocated America's reconnaissance in our EEZ by sending our ships to America's EEZ for reconnaissance," Zhou said. This had happened a few times, "compared to almost daily reconnaissance by the U.S. along with their ally Japan in our EEZ."

Disputed territory

China has placed ships at the Scarborough Shoal -- located about three times closer to the Philippines -- since a standoff between vessels from both countries last year. Two Chinese vessels last week were monitoring a separate shoal in the nearby Spratly islands that is occupied by the Philippines.

Japan's purchase last year of East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China led to anti-Japan demonstrations that reduced China sales at Toyota Motor Corp. (7203), Nissan Motor (7201) Co. and Honda Motor Co.

Japan, a U.S. ally, boosted defense spending for the first time in 11 years to defend its territory in an "increasingly severe security environment," Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told the forum on June 1. He said Japan, while committed to pacifism, may create a National Security Council and wants to establish a regional body at the "earliest possible timing" to prevent crises over incidents at sea.

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung warned in a May 31 speech opening the three-day Singapore forum that miscalculations may disrupt the estimated two-thirds of global trade that moves through the South China Sea as countries compete for fish, oil and gas.

Irresponsible action

"A single irresponsible action or instigation of conflict could well lead to the interruption of such huge trade flow, thus causing unforeseeable consequences not only to regional economies, but also to the entire world," he said.

The Philippines and Vietnam reject China's map of the sea, first published in the 1940s, as a basis for joint exploration of oil and gas. China National Offshore Oil Corp. estimates the South China Sea may hold about five times more undiscovered natural gas than the country's current proved reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"It will be difficult for large reservoirs of much-needed gas and oil to be found and extracted given the current tensions within the seas in Asia," Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen told the forum yesterday.

U.S.-China ties

Hagel sought to reassure Asian allies that budget reductions won't derail U.S. commitment to their security. A year after the Pentagon said it would "rebalance" its strategy to focus more on the region after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department faces as much as $500 billion in cuts over the next nine years as part of a deficit-reduction law.

While Hagel again accused China of waging cyber-attacks, he also called for more dialogue and sought to reassure Xi's government that U.S. moves to shift 60 percent of naval assets to Asia by 2020 weren't aimed at China.

"We don't want miscalculations and misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and the only way you do that is you talk to each other," Hagel said on June 1 in response to a question from a Chinese delegate at the event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Speaking at a briefing in Beijing today, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China is also a victim of cyber-attacks and the country is ready to have "a constructive dialogue with the U.S. side on cybersecurity based on mutual respect and trust."

Hagel's message was reiterated by Admiral Locklear, who said the U.S. wants more exchanges with China to overcome a lack of trust between the forces. In the past year, China joined a counter-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden and received an invitation to take part in the Pacific's largest multicountry naval deployment.

"The U.S. doesn't want the Philippines to set the agenda for it," said Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, who attended the Singapore talks. "The larger game is improved U.S.-China relations."

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