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Philippines vents anger at China over naval buildup
by Staff Writers
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei (AFP) June 30, 2013


South China Sea: facts on a decades-long dispute
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei (AFP) June 30, 2013 - Competing claims to the South China Sea have for decades been a source of tension in the region.

The Philippines accused China on Sunday of a "massive" military buildup in the sea, warning at the start of a regional security forum that the Asian giant's tactics were a threat to peace.

Below are key facts on the issue:

GEOGRAPHY

The South China Sea covers more than 3 million square kilometres (1.16 million square miles), ringed by southern China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo island, and mainland Southeast Asia.

Most of its hundreds of small islands, islets and rocks are uninhabited. The Paracel and Spratly chains contain the biggest islands.

SIGNIFICANCE

The sea is the main maritime link between the Pacific and Indian oceans, giving it enormous trade and military value. Its shipping lanes connect East Asia with Europe and the Middle East.

Major unexploited oil and gas deposits are believed to lie under the seabed.

The sea is home to some of the world's biggest coral reefs and, with marine life being depleted close to coasts, it is important as a source of fish to feed growing populations.

CLAIMANTS

China and Taiwan both claim nearly all of the sea, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei each have often-overlapping claims to parts of it.

Beijing's argument is based largely on a decades-old Chinese map with a "nine-dashed line" that approaches the coasts of other countries and outlines its claim.

NAME

Beijing and most other countries know it as the South China Sea. Hanoi calls it the East Sea and Manila officially refers to it as the West Philippine Sea.

OCCUPATION/CONTROL

China has held all of the Paracel islands since a conflict with South Vietnam in 1974 that left 53 Vietnamese troops dead.

Vietnam is believed to occupy or control more than 20 of the Spratly islands and reefs, the most of any claimant.

Taiwan has a garrison controlled by its coastguard on Itu Aba island, which is called Taiping in Chinese and is the largest in the Spratlys.

The Philippines occupies nine of the Spratlys, including Thitu island, the second largest. The Philippines has a military presence and civilians living on Thitu, which it calls Pagasa.

China occupies at least seven of the Spratlys including Johnson Reef, which it gained after a naval battle with Vietnam in 1988.

Malaysia occupies three of the Spratlys. The most significant presence is on Swallow Reef, called Layang Layang Island in Malaysia, where it has a naval post and a diving resort.

Brunei claims a submerged reef and a submerged bank in the Spratlys.

TENSIONS -- CHINA/VIETNAM

Aside from the 1974 battle for the Paracels, the only other major conflict occurred when Vietnam and China fought a naval battle on Johnson Reef in the Spratlys in 1988 that left 70 Vietnamese military personnel dead.

However, Chinese naval vessels have fired at other times on Vietnamese fishing boats in the area.

In June last year Vietnam passed a law proclaiming its jurisdiction over all of the Paracel and Spratly islands, triggering Chinese protests.

At about the same time China announced it had created a new city, Sansha, on one of the Paracel islands, to administer Chinese rule over its South China Sea domain.

TENSIONS -- CHINA/PHILIPPINES

In 1995 China began building structures on Mischief Reef, within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Tensions between the two nations rose in 2011 when Chinese vessels harassed a Philippine-chartered gas exploration vessel at Reed Bank.

The Philippines then accused Chinese military and paramilitary vessels of a campaign of intimidation within the country's exclusive economic zone, including the occupation of Scarborough Shoal.

The Philippines accused China on Sunday of a "massive" military buildup in the disputed South China Sea, warning at a regional security forum that the Asian giant's tactics were a threat to peace.

The statement by Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario ensured that the growing row over rival claims to the strategically vital and potentially resource-rich sea would again be a key focus of the annual four-day Asia-Pacific talks.

"Del Rosario today expressed serious concern over the increasing militarisation of the South China Sea," said a Philippine government statement released on the first day of the event in the Brunei capital.

Del Rosario said there was a "massive presence of Chinese military and paramilitary ships" at two groups of islets within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, called Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal.

Del Rosario described the Chinese presence at these islets as "threats to efforts to maintain maritime peace and stability in the region".

He did not give details of the alleged buildup but said the Chinese actions violated a pact in 2002 in which rival claimants to the sea pledged not to take any actions that may increase tensions.

The declaration on conduct signed by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China also committed claimants to settle their disputes "without resorting to the threat or use of force".

China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of neighbouring countries.

ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan, also have competing claims to parts of the sea.

The rivalries have for decades been a source of regional tension, with China and Vietnam fighting battles in 1974 and 1988 for control of some islands in which dozens of Vietnamese soldiers died.

Tensions have again grown in recent years with the Philippines, Vietnam and some other countries expressing concern at increasingly assertive Chinese military and diplomatic tactics to stress control of the sea.

Setting the tone for the Brunei event, a powerful arm of China's state-run media warned the Philippines on Saturday that its defiance could lead to aggressive Chinese action.

"If the Philippines continues to provoke China... a counterstrike will be hard to avoid," said a commentary run by the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.

Del Rosario on Sunday expressed alarm at such rhetoric.

"The statement on counterstrike is an irresponsible one. We condemn any threats of use of force. We condemn that. And we continue to pursue the resolution of our disputes in a peaceful way," he said.

ASEAN has been trying for more than a decade to secure agreement from China on a legally binding code of conduct that would govern actions in the South China Sea.

China has resisted agreeing to the code, wary of making any concessions that may weaken its claim to the sea.

Nevertheless, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said ASEAN would continue to press its case with China in Brunei.

"We will be really zeroing in on the need for the code of conduct," Natalegawa told reporters on Saturday.

Toxic smoke from uncontrolled burning of Indonesia's enormous rainforests that has drifted across to neighbouring countries was also discussed on the first day of the Brunei talks.

Natalegawa said on Saturday that the fires had been greatly reduced and were coming under control.

The talks will expand on Monday and Tuesday to include the United States, China, Japan, Russia and other countries across the Asia-Pacific, providing the platform for face-to-face diplomacy on many of the world's hot-button issues.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to hold a series of rapid-fire meetings with his counterparts from the world's major powers, including Russia's Sergei Lavrov and China's Wang Yi.

The United States has been frustrated in recent weeks by perceived Chinese and Russian help for fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who is at Moscow's airport after being allowed to leave the Chinese territory of Hong Kong.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-Se, are also set to hold direct talks in Brunei, the first ministerial meeting between the two countries under their new governments.

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