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SE Asian navies seek closer ties amid sea spat
by Staff Writers
Hanoi (AFP) July 27, 2011

Southeast Asian naval chiefs pledged closer cooperation on Wednesday as they held their first formal talks amid regional concern over China's activities in the South China Sea.

Competing claims to the potentially oil-rich Paracel and Spratly island groups have caused rising tensions in recent months, with regional neighbours accusing China of behaving aggressively.

Vice Admiral Alexander Pama, commander of the Philippine navy, said the gathering in Hanoi was the first "formal meeting" of naval chiefs from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc.

He said the forum was held for the "purpose of enhancing collaboration, cooperation, among the ASEAN navies".

The disputed areas, which straddle vital commercial shipping lanes, are subject to a tangle of maritime claims by China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Malaysia's top sailor Admiral Abdul Aziz Jaafar urged China to "respect the sovereignty" of states in the region, in comments to reporters during the talks.

ASEAN foreign ministers last week voiced "serious concern" over recent incidents in the South China Sea.

On Sunday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the international community should weigh into dialogue between China and Southeast Asia to ensure disputes "don't get out of control".

After attending Asia's main security forum in Indonesia, Clinton said a deal on guidelines for future negotiations was a first step to a binding code of conduct, but condemned acts of "intimidation" in the area.

"The eyes of the world have turned to the maritime area in our region," said Pama during the one-day naval talks.

"A solid ASEAN is an integral part of the solution to the South China Sea."

Hanoi's Vice Admiral Pham Ngoc Minh said the meeting "aimed to raise responsibility and define the importance of cooperation between naval forces of each ASEAN member, in maintaining peace, stability and development in the region," according to the official Vietnam News Agency, before the talks.

Tensions between Hanoi and Beijing flared in May when Vietnam said Chinese marine surveillance vessels cut the exploration cables of an oil survey ship inside the country's exclusive economic zone.

Admirals had initial discussions about a "hotline", which Pama told reporters could be used to improve coordination between naval headquarters.

He said it was too early to discuss whether such a hotline could help deal with tensions in the South China Sea.

Manila has complained that Chinese naval vessels harassed an oil exploration vessel in disputed waters in March, shot at Filipino fishermen and placed markers on some of the islets.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino said in Hanoi on Monday that his country was prepared to use military force to protect its territory, although its navy is made up mainly of World War II-vintage US ships.

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