Bloomberg News

U.S. Must Boost Asean Defenses in S. China Sea, McCain Says

June 21, 2011

(Adds Chinese spokesman’s comments in fifth paragraph.)

June 21 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. must help Southeast Asian countries build up naval defenses to counter “aggressive” Chinese actions in the South China Sea, Senator John McCain said in a speech.

The U.S. should aid the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to “build up their maritime defense and detection capabilities to develop and deploy basic systems such as early- warning radar and coastal security vessels,” he said, according to a transcript of a speech yesterday to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Tensions in the disputed waters have increased over the past month as the Philippines and Vietnam said Chinese ships had harassed their oil and gas survey vessels. Exxon Mobil Corp., Talisman Energy Inc., Forum Energy Plc and Vietnam Oil & Gas Group, known as PetroVietnam, have operations in areas of the South China Sea claimed by China.

McCain, an Arizona Republican and ranking member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said “the aggressive behavior of China and the unsubstantiated territorial claims that it seeks to advance” are “exacerbating tensions” in the waters.

“China has always committed to resolving the South China Sea issue through bilateral negotiations,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing today. “China does what it says. China has been working to constructively solve the South China Sea issues in a peaceful manner.”

‘Bad Example’

Vietnam and China conducted a two-day joint patrol of the countries’ delineated maritime border in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam News reported, citing Vietnam’s Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff Colonel Nguyen Van Kiem. The 11th joint patrol between the countries began June 19 and included two vessels from each navy, the paper said.

An unsigned editorial in the Chinese state-owned Global Times today said Vietnam “has been gaining the most benefits from undersea natural gas and oil exploitation” and is “setting a bad example in Southeast Asia.”

“If Vietnam continues to provoke China in this region, China will first deal with it with maritime police forces, and if necessary, strike back with naval forces,” the editorial said, adding that China would also take back islands occupied by Vietnam. “If Vietnam wants to start a war, China has the confidence to destroy invading Vietnam battleships, despite possible objections from the international community.”

McCain called on President Barack Obama’s administration to clarify the U.S. position on territorial claims and “what actions we are prepared to take to support our policies and partners.”

‘Decisive Role’

“The events now unfolding in the South China Sea will play a decisive role in shaping the development of the Asia-Pacific region in this century,” he said.

Senators Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat and a former Secretary of the Navy, and James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, submitted a resolution on June 13 condemning what they described as “the use of force” by Chinese vessels.

The U.S., which has patrolled Asia-Pacific waters since World War II, has defense treaties with the Philippines and Thailand, and guarantees Taiwan’s security. The U.S. Navy has said it will conduct joint training exercises with both the Philippines and Vietnam over the next two months.

World War II Vessel

The U.S. sold a 378-foot Coast Guard vessel equipped with a helicopter launching pad and missile system to the Philippines earlier this year that will be its largest naval vessel when delivered in August, according to a May 12 statement by the Philippine Navy. The BRP Rajah Humabon, currently the biggest Philippines vessel, was built in 1943 and used by the U.S. against German submarines in World War II.

Chinese ships have rammed survey vessels operated by PetroVietnam twice in the past month, according to Vietnam’s foreign ministry, with one incident occurring in an area where Calgary-based Talisman Energy planned a seismic program this year. China has disputed that version of events, saying it’s committed to maintaining peace in the seas.

The personnel in the China Marine Surveillance force will rise to 15,000 by 2020 from 9,000 now, the China Daily reported June 17, citing an unidentified official with the agency. The number of surveillance vessels operated by the CMS will increase from 260 to 350, the report said.

In addition to the CMS, China has four other civilian maritime forces, including a fishery protection fleet that has grown by an average of 100 vessels a year since 2005, according to a report last year by China Daily.

--With assistance from Michael Forsythe in Beijing. Editors: Ben Richardson, Mark Williams

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

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


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