Wednesday, August 28, 2013

US defense chief tiptoes on sea row in Asia trip

From the Manila Standard Today (Aug 28): US defense chief tiptoes on sea row in Asia trip


Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel met with his Asian counterparts on Wednesday as the United States promoted its strategic tilt towards the region.

The Pentagon is offering ships, radar and other security assistance to countries in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, partly as a counterbalance to China’s military build-up.

Hagel, however, has trodden carefully when discussing China during the trip, and officials said Washington wanted to avoid inflaming tensions.

In other developments:

• Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista confirmed on Wednesday that Chinese fishermen escorted by maritime ships continued their illegal activities in Ayungin Reef at the Kalayaan Island Group in Palawan.

• The Philippine government has until March 30, 2014 to submit documents on the case it filed against China’s nine-dash-line claim over the oil-resource-rich West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), the Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague said in an order it issued for the first time.

President Benigno Aquino III will fly to China next week to attend the 10th China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO) in Nanning.

Hagel plans to call for restraint in the disputed South China Sea and to underscore America’s focus on Asia-Pacific at the gathering in Brunei of defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China and elsewhere, officials said.

The two-day ASEAN meeting was the main event of Hagel’s week-long trip to Southeast Asia but a mounting crisis between Syria and the West has repeatedly competed for his attention.

Despite Pentagon budget cuts, US officials say Washington will stick by plans to deploy more ships, troops, training and hardware to countries anxious about China’s growing military reach.

Hagel met Wednesday with Japan’s defence minister, Itsuno Onodera, who thanked him for attending the gathering despite the Syria situation.

Onodera said this week that Japan could be a “main player” if conflict erupts in Asia and needed to be wary of China’s maritime ambitions.

Tokyo is feuding with Beijing over territorial claims in the East China Sea while some Southeast Asian countries have accused China of increasingly provocative acts in asserting its claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.

Such strains are expected to be a key focus of the talks and to feature in Hagel’s discussions with his counterparts from South Korea, Vietnam and Brunei.

Hagel is also due to meet China’s defence minister, General Chang Wanquan, and Myanmar’s defence chief on the sidelines of the ASEAN conference.

The United States has avoided taking a position on individual disputes but Hagel reiterated calls for the adoption of a South China Sea code of conduct to prevent potential clashes.

China has been accused of dragging its feet on the issue, but this year said it would enter into future talks with ASEAN on the issue.

“This is not about encircling China or anybody else,” the US Defense Secretary said in the BBC interview.

“This is about economic interests, it’s about the world, it’s about prosperity, stability and security.”

The ASEAN gathering brings together defence ministers from 10 Southeast Asia countries plus Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, Gen. Bautista said the Chinese continues to poach in Philippine waters, despite the presence of a Marine detachment in the area.

“We continue to maintain a detachment at the Ayungin [Reef] and we also observed continuous presence of the Chinese Maritime Surveillance (CMS) ships in the vicinity of the [reef] ranging from two to five miles away,” Bautista said during a forum hosted by the Manila Overseas Press Club (MPOC) at the Intercontinental Hotel in Makati City.

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