Tensions increase in South China Sea dispute by Richard McGregor and Daniel Dombey in Washington

8/7/110 nhận xét

[FT] Senator Jim Webb grasps an electronic pointer and traces an arc on a map of the South China Sea, marking out the maritime boundaries of Beijing’s Asian neighbours.

The map, which reflects Beijing’s claim over the oceans just off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, is becoming a new flashpoint in US-Sino relations.

Chinese vessels have clashed with Vietnamese and Filipino boats off the coasts of the two Asian countries in recent months, and Beijing has protested noisily at US efforts to help mediate the dispute.

The issue is testing the Obama administration’s contention that US-Chinese ties are more firmly rooted in the wake of President Hu Jintao’s January visit to Washington. Congress is already pushing for the White House to take a tougher line with Beijing.

“We don’t yield to this type of approach on sovereignty,” says Mr Webb, a Democrat, who spearheaded a unanimous Senate resolution condemning China’s use of force and calling for a multilateral solution to the issue.

A separate letter, signed by 45 of the chamber’s 100 senators, calling for the administration to approve the sale of F16 fighter jets to Taiwan, may lead to even greater damage to ties with China. “I would hope that we would not step away from Taiwan’s ability to send a credible signal on security,” says Mr Webb.

The US and Chinese militaries have tentatively resumed contacts in recent months, including a trip to Washington in May by General Chen Bingde, head of the People’s Liberation Army.

The F16s are caught up in politics in both Taiwan and the US. In the US, members of Congress are keen to maintain production of the fighters in Fort Worth, Texas.

In Taipei, Ma Ying-jeou, the president, insists Taiwan wants the aircraft but has refrained from making a formal request without a go-ahead from the White House. Any sale of F16s would be certain to damage relations with China. Beijing cut military ties after the last big US sale to Taiwan last year.

The tension over Taiwan comes as Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, prepares to renew Washington’s call for a multilateral settlement to disputes in the South China Sea.

The area around the Spratlys, a chain of largely uninhabited islands and reefs in the South China Sea, has long been the subject of competing claims by China and numerous Asian nations, propelled by a conviction that the area is resource-rich.

After years in which the countries left the issue in abeyance, China has been taking a more assertive approach, sending its vessels and aircraft into waters claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.

“This is an area which combines potentially substantial wealth with very important strategic implications,” says Ken Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution.

The rising tension over competing claims, he says, has created “a situation where sooner or later there is going to be an accident and someone is going to get killed”.

Mrs Clinton angered China last year when she said at a meeting of south-east Asian nations that the US was ready to “facilitate” talks on a code of conduct for the area. China insists the issue should be dealt with bilaterally with each of the countries involved.

After the recent incidents, Mrs Clinton is set to argue at Asean’s meeting in Bali this month that the need for a code of conduct is more urgent than ever. She said after meeting Albert del Rosario, foreign secretary of the Philippines, that the US would “do what we can” to support Manila on maritime defence.

Like many Asian leaders who once shunned the US, only to call for its return to Asia to balance China’s rising power, Mr del Rosario was more direct, saying Manila would count on Washington’s “unwavering support”.
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