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China Warns U.S. to Stay Out of Islands Dispute
NYT[Wednesday, July 28, 2010 18:15]

The New York Times
The New York Times
BEIJING — The Chinese government reacted angrily on Monday to an announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that Washington might step into a long-simmering territorial dispute between China and its smaller neighbors in the South China Sea.

Speaking Friday during a forum of Southeast Asian countries in Vietnam, Mrs. Clinton apparently surprised Beijing by saying the United States had a “national interest” in seeking to mediate the dispute, which involves roughly 200 islands, islets and coral outcroppings that are claimed by China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China warned the United States against wading into the conflict, saying it would increase regional tensions.

“What will be the consequences if this issue is turned into an international or multilateral one?” he asked in remarks published on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site. “It will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult.”

The state-run news media were far less diplomatic, describing Mrs. Clinton’s speech as “an attack” and a cynical effort to suppress China’s aspirations — and its expanding might.

“America hopes to contain a China with growing military capabilities,” ran an editorial Monday in the Communist Party-run People’s Daily newspaper.

Global Times, an English-language tabloid published by People’s Daily, said, “China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.”

Ms. Clinton’s announcement came at time of rising tension between Washington and Beijing over a number of economic and diplomatic differences. On Sunday, the United States and South Korea began four days of naval drills off the Korean Peninsula involving 200 aircraft, 20 ships and an aircraft carrier. Although the exercises are meant as a message to North Korea — which the South has blamed for a torpedo attack on one of its warships in March that killed 46 sailors — China has greeted the maneuvers with some alarm.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi on Friday. (photo by Hoang Dinh Nam)
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi on Friday. (photo by Hoang Dinh Nam)
Until Mrs. Clinton made her remarks, the dispute over the South China Sea islands had remained a largely regional concern. The area of contention, which spans 1.2 million square miles, is an increasingly important conduit for a third of the world’s maritime trade and much of the region’s energy supplies. Just as compelling are the enormous deposits of oil and natural gas thought to be under the ocean floor.

In 1988, the Chinese and Vietnamese military sparred over one archipelago, the Paracel Islands, claiming the lives of dozens of Vietnamese sailors. This year, China announced plans to develop tourism in the Paracels. In recent months, it has been warning foreign oil companies against striking exploration deals with Vietnam.

Xu Liping, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said that the United States, long distracted by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, was seeking to revive its influence in the region.

“The U.S. feels like this is the time to play the political and military card since it’s very difficult for them to compete with China in the economic sphere,” he said, adding that if Washington could play a larger role in the South China Sea, “it will help to continue its influence among South Asian countries.”

American officials have reacted with growing concern over China’s naval ambitions, a new strategy that Chinese admirals have described as its “far sea defense.” Beyond refusing to cede any ground on sovereignty in the South China Sea, China has announced plans to deploy aircraft carriers, and it has strengthened its armada with nuclear-powered submarines capable of firing ballistic missiles.

In March, China warned two visiting American officials that it would not tolerate interference in the South China Sea, an area it described as its “core interest,” much like Tibet and Taiwan.

China’s neighbors have reacted by bolstering their own naval forces. In recent years, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia have acquired submarines. On Sunday, Japan announced plans to increase its submarine fleet for the first time in more than three decades.

Mrs. Clinton’s announcement on Friday was essentially a nod to Vietnam, which has been seeking support for multilateral negotiations as a bulwark against China’s stance on issues of sovereignty. China has insisted that the conflict be resolved through one-on-one negotiations. “The consensus is to have these disputes solved peacefully through friendly consultations in the interest of peace and stability in the South China Sea and good neighborly relations,” Mr. Yang, the Chinese foreign minister, said in his statement.

Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said Washington’s enhanced interest in the South China Sea was sure to heighten tensions between the countries. Such confrontations have already been playing out through less-than-friendly encounters between American and Chinese vessels.

“This is clearly an unpleasant surprise for the Chinese,” Mr. Storey said of Mrs. Clinton’s announcement.

Li Bibo and Zhang Jing contributed research.
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