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China Warns U.S. to Stay Out of Islands Dispute

July 29, 2010

By ANDREW JACOBS
New York Times
July 26, 2010


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.

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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