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Vietnam holds live-fire drill amid China tensions
by Staff Writers
Hanoi (AFP) June 14, 2011

Manila: 'West Philippine Sea', not 'South China'
Manila (AFP) June 13, 2011 - Philippine President Benigno Aquino's office said Monday it was renaming the South China Sea as the "West Philippine Sea", as tensions with Beijing mount over the disputed area.

The Philippines and China, along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims to areas of the South China Sea, most importantly the Spratly Islands that are believed to sit on vast oil and gas resources.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the foreign affairs and defence departments recently began using the term West Philippine Sea instead of the South China Sea, and the president's office had decided to follow suit.

"It is incumbent on us to take the cue from them and to refer to South China Sea as West Philippine Sea," he said.

Lacierda pointed out other countries had similar practices.

"All the other nations call the South China Sea based on how they perceive it. Vietnam calls it East Sea so it is but natural for us to call it West Philippine Sea," he said.

The area of water to the east of the island nation is already known as the Philippine Sea, so that the new name threatens possible confusion over the western part of that sea.

Philippine foreign department spokesman Ed Malaya said his agency had first publicly referred to the "West Philippine Sea" on June 1, but even before that had used the term in communications with China.

In recent weeks, the Philippines has publicly accused Chinese forces of being behind seven incidents or confrontations with Filipinos in and around the Spratlys.

Chinese ambassador Liu Jianchao said the reported incidents were mere "rumours" or exaggeration, but insisted on China's sovereignty over the Spratlys.

As regional tensions mount, Taiwan announced over the weekend it was planning to deploy missile boats to the South China Sea and tanks on some of the islands.

Vietnam held live-fire naval drills in the South China Sea on Monday.

Lacierda said Manila would increase its defences in the area "to enable the effective patrol and protection of our national territory".

Vietnam put on a show of military strength in the tense South China Sea on Monday, risking the ire of Beijing in the face of a deepening maritime rift with its powerful neighbour.

Relations between the communist nations have sunk to their lowest point in years following recent sea confrontations which reignited a long-standing dispute over sovereignty of two potentially oil-rich archipelagos.

A successful first barrage of naval artillery, lasting about four hours, took place about 40 kilometres (25 miles) off Quang Nam province in central Vietnam, said a naval officer in Danang city who asked not to be named.

He declined to reveal how many ships had been mobilised but said no missiles were fired. A similar night drill started at 7:00 pm (1200 GMT) and lasted about five hours, the officer added.

AFP's request to witness the exercise was not granted.

Although Vietnam's foreign ministry described it as routine annual training, analysts say the drill has raised temperatures in the South China Sea, where Asian nations have conflicting claims over possibly energy-rich waters.

The exercise "is designed to send China a message that Vietnam refuses to be pushed around", said Ian Storey, a regional security analyst with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"I think the Chinese will react very badly to this," he added.

The drills are inside the area Vietnam claims as its 200-nautical-mile economic zone.

Hanoi last month accused Chinese surveillance vessels of cutting the exploration cables of an oil survey ship inside the area.

On Thursday Vietnam alleged a similar incident in the zone, saying a Chinese fishing boat rammed the cables of another oil survey ship in a "premeditated" attack.

Beijing countered by warning Vietnam to halt all activities that it says violate China's sovereignty in the disputed area.

"No one wants a war but the possibility of some shots being fired in anger or of some ships running into other ships has increased," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum CSIS, a research institute.

The United States says it is "troubled" by the tensions triggered by the maritime dispute.

But US senator Jim Webb, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, urged Congress to do more and condemn China over the growing number of maritime rifts.

"I think we in our government have taken too weak of a position on this," said Webb, a member of President Barack Obama's Democratic Party.

The naval drill was about 250 kilometres from the Paracel Islands and almost 1,000 kilometres from the Spratlys, the archipelagos which are claimed by both nations and which straddle strategic shipping lanes.

Vietnam has said it wants to see a peaceful resolution and adherence to international law.

Beijing, too, says it is committed to peace in the South China Sea, but its more assertive maritime posture has caused concern regionally and beyond.

Tensions have also risen this year between China and the Philippines, another claimant to the Spratlys, which on Monday said it would from now on refer to the South China Sea as the "West Philippine Sea".

Taiwan on the weekend reiterated its claim to the Spratlys, and said missile boats and tanks could be deployed to disputed territory.

Brunei and Malaysia have also staked claims in the area.

Vietnamese bitterly recall 1,000 years of Chinese occupation and, more recently, a 1979 border war. More than 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed in 1988 when the two sides battled off the Spratlys.

About 300 people in Ho Chi Minh City and in Hanoi held anti-China rallies on Sunday to proclaim Vietnam's maritime sovereignty for the second weekend in a row. Demonstrations are rarely allowed in Vietnam.

In interviews, protesters voiced support for the naval drill. "It shows to China and to the world that we will do everything to protect our land and our sea," said Tran Bao, 36.

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Senator calls for US action on China sea disputes
Washington (AFP) June 13, 2011 - A US senator on Monday urged condemnation of China's behavior in maritime rifts with its neighbors, saying Washington has been too weak-kneed as tensions rise in the South China Sea. Jim Webb, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, introduced a bill that would denounce China for the use of force and urge it to seek a peaceful resolution to disputes. China has a host of territorial disputes with its neighbors and incidents at sea have been on the rise. Vietnam on Monday carried out live-fire drills in the South China Sea in a show of force. "I think we in our government have taken too weak of a position on this," Webb, a member of President Barack Obama's Democratic Party from Virginia, said at the Council on Foreign Relations. "When we say the United States government doesn't have a position on sovereignty issues, not taking a position is taking a position," Webb said.

The bill introduced by Webb and Senator James Inhofe, the subcommittee's top Republican, "condemns the use of force" by China and affirms that the US military will "assert and defend freedom of navigation rights" in the South China Sea. Webb did not call for an explicit stand on territorial disputes, but said that the United States needed to send "a clear signal" and to work multilaterally for a solution. The United States generally does not take positions on territorial disputes in which it is not directly involved. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks in July 2010 in Vietnam, said that the United States had a national interest in freedom of navigation but did not take a position on the South China Sea disputes. China and Vietnam each claim the strategic Paracel Islands and Spratly archipelago. Tensions have also risen this year between China and the Philippines, another claimant to the Spratlys, which said Monday that it would from now on refer to the South China Sea as the "West Philippine Sea."

China and Japan have a longstanding dispute over the islands known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, and Japan last year briefly detained a Chinese captain after a clash at sea. During the crisis, Clinton said that the islands fell under the scope of the 1960 security treaty that requires the United States to defend Japan from aggression, remarks that angered China. Webb, a former combat Marine and journalist with long experience in Asia, recently proposed a rethink of plans to realign US military bases in Asia that have caused intense political controversy in Japan. Webb voiced hope that senators would allow flexibility when they meet this week on the so-called defense authorization bill, which allocates funding for the 2012 fiscal year. "I'm pretty confident that we're going to have some specific language in the authorization addressing the way forward on this," Webb said. Under a 2006 plan, the United States would shift the Futenma base -- a long source of grievance as it lies in a crowded urban area on Okinawa -- to an isolated stretch on the same island.

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