China raises tempo over disputed islands

China raises tempo over disputed islands

Bejing is asserting its rights over energy-rich islands in its neighbourhood that Japan too claims

China raises tempo over disputed islands

As tension mounts between China and its neighbours over islands in nearby strategic waterways, China has scored some subtle victories, making the United States and its friends increasingly uneasy.

The disputes between China and Japan over potentially energy-rich islands in the East China Sea, and between China and the Philippines over an island that China has effectively blocked to Filipino vessels, will be central in talks between US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Chinese leadership in Beijing on Tuesday evening and on Wednesday, US and Chinese officials said.

During her visit, part of a 10-day, six-nation swing through Asia that is likely to be her last to China as secretary of state, Clinton is planning to urge China to enter discussions with its neighbours over conflicting claims in the South China Sea, Obama administration officials said. The Chinese have resisted holding such talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, saying the time was not right.

Since her last visit to Beijing, in May, the Chinese have acted more boldly in maritime disputes in the region and with more cohesion among government agencies.
The official Chinese press has adopted an increasingly confident tone in the South China Sea disputes, asserting that the United States should accept that it is in decline.

Editorials have warned the United States from trying to benefit from territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and in the East China Sea where an age old dispute over islands near rich oil and gas fields have flared anew between China and Japan, a treaty ally with Washington.

Speaking at a regular Foreign Ministry press briefing, the ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the islands in dispute between China and Japan were “inherent” parts of China since “ancient times.” Without naming the United States, he warned outside parties from meddling in the South China Sea.

In a move that was interpreted as a modest victory for China, Japanese prime minister Yoshiko Noda called in a letter to China’s president, Hu Jintao, last Friday for “calm handling” by both sides over the islands in the East China Sea known in China as the Diaoyu, and by Japan as the Senkakus.

The letter was seen as a conciliatory gesture by the Japanese government after a group of 10 activists backed by Tokyo businessmen, who say they want to buy the islands, organized a landing on the islands on August 19 without permission from the central Japanese authorities.

A second group of activists from the Tokyo metropolitan government, calling themselves a survey team, went to the waters near the islands on the weekend, a first step for the plan to buy the islands.

Quiet negotiation

In the case involving the Philippines and China, the Obama administration quietly negotiated a deal in May that called for Filipino and Chinese vessels to leave the Scarborough Shoal, known as the Huangyan Islands.

But as the Chinese sailed away, they left behind a rope that still blocks the entrance to the lagoon, said two Asian diplomats familiar with the situation, who declined to be named according to diplomatic protocol.

The Philippines foreign affairs undersecretary, Laura del Rosario, said last Friday three Chinese vessels remained just outside the lagoon, preventing any Filipino fishing vessels from entering.

With the placement of the rope, and the positioning of its boats, China has effectively established a new status quo at the Scarborough Shoal, and appeared determined not to back down, the two diplomats said.

In a public display of displeasure with Washington over the East China Sea disputes, China reacted quickly to a declaration by the State Department last week that the United States called the islands in dispute between China and Japan by their Japanese name, the Senkakus.

The State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said the islands were under the administrative control of the government of Japan since they were “part of the reversion of Okinawa” in 1972, and thus fell under the US-Japan defence treaty.

Pressed by a Chinese reporter whether Washington regarded the islands as part of Japanese territory, Nuland said: “We don’t take a position on the islands, but we do assert that they are covered under the treaty.”

A Chinese specialist on Japan said Nuland’s comments were unacceptable.
“Previously, the United States said it holds no position on sovereignty,” said Hu Lingyuan, the deputy director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Now it’s contradicting itself. The Chinese people cannot accept this. The US is very visibly taking sides with Japan.”

People’s Daily retorted that the islands were Chinese territory, did not fall under Washington’s defence treaty with Japan, and there was “no room for negotiation.”
Anti-Japanese sentiment has been stoked by full coverage on national television of the Japanese landings on the islands in the East China Sea. In small villages and in provincial newspapers, the Japanese were the subject of vilification as people gathered around television sets.

Adding to the tensions, the Japanese flag on the hood of the official car of the Japanese ambassador in China was ripped off last week as it travelled in Beijing. The Japanese press reported that four suspects had been questioned by the Beijing authorities but had not been detained.

“It is alarming for Japan that many people praised the attack, calling the suspects ‘heroes,”’ The Daily Yomiuri, wrote in an editorial.

Adding to the tensions, the China National Offshore Oil Corp., which extracts about 25 per cent of its crude oil from the South China Sea, announced last week that it was opening bids for tenders from international companies for a new swathe of oil fields in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

At least two of the fields are in disputed waters with Japan and with Vietnam, diplomats said.

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