Bloomberg News

U.S. Warns of South China Sea Clashes Without Code of Conduct

June 04, 2011

June 5 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that more clashes will occur in the South China Sea if nations vying for oil and gas in the waters fail to agree on ways to avoid confrontations.

“I fear that without rules of the road and without agreed approaches to dealing with these problems, that there will be clashes,” Gates said yesterday at the annual IISS Asia Security Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. “That serves nobody’s interest.”

The defense ministers of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, all of which have disputes with China in the sea, will speak on maritime security issues today. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie is scheduled to give a keynote address on China’s international security cooperation.

Tensions have risen in the South China Sea in the past month. The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest after Chinese vessels were seen in an area claimed by both countries, and Vietnam last week said Chinese ships cut survey cables of a boat operated by Vietnam Oil & Gas Group, or PetroVietnam.

China’s claims to most of the South China Sea have sparked protests from neighboring countries that rely on the U.S. Navy as a stabilizing force in the strategic lanes. Exxon Mobil Corp., Talisman Energy Inc. and Forum Energy Plc are all planning exploration activities in blocks with Chinese claims.

‘Space for Diplomacy’

“Disputes in the South China Sea appear to be growing in intensity and even bringing naval forces into contact with each other,” said John Chipman, director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The meeting in Singapore “will be an important opportunity to reduce tensions and offer space for diplomacy,” he said in opening remarks on June 3.

China asserts “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the South China Sea, including oil and gas fields more than three times further from its coast than they are from Vietnam.

“It would be a mistake for us to see China as an adversary,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a speech on June 3. “If we treat China in a very constructive, positive way, I’m more than convinced that the Chinese will respond positively to us.”

Najib said he’s “optimistic” the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations can sign a binding code of conduct in the waters. China and Asean have struggled to reach an agreement that builds on a less formal 2002 pact.

Such an accord “would clarify” many of the recent clashes in the sea, Gates said.

Biggest Spenders

China and the U.S. are the world’s biggest spenders on arms. The Pentagon is requesting $671 billion for fiscal 2012 starting Oct. 1, $37 billion less than this year’s request. China plans to increase defense spending 12.7 percent this year to 601.1 billion yuan ($92.8 billion), a figure U.S. analysts say underestimates actual outlays.

Exploration in waters under China’s jurisdiction infringes its “sovereignty and interests and is illegal,” the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said May 12. China has bolstered its forces over the past decade, procuring nuclear-powered submarines and developing an aircraft carrier, according to a Defense Department report in August.

The U.S., which has defense treaties with the Philippines and Thailand and guarantees Taiwan’s security, has patrolled Asia-Pacific waters since World War II. Gates reiterated concerns this week over China’s development of advanced military technology, including anti-ship ballistic missiles.

--Editors: Paul Tighe, Andrew Rummer

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Singapore at dtenkate@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Tighe at ptighe@bloomberg.net; Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net


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