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Willard Says He’s ‘Concerned’ About S. China Sea Tensions

June 01, 2011

(Adds Philippines’ protest in second paragraph.)

June 1 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Navy Admiral Robert Willard said he’s concerned about recent tensions involving China and its neighbors in the South China Sea as they vie for oil and gas resources in disputed waters.

The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest after Chinese vessels were seen in an area claimed by both countries, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told a forum in Manila today. Last week, Vietnam said Chinese ships cut survey cables of a boat operated by Vietnam Oil & Gas Group, or PetroVietnam.

“In 2010, the entire region became concerned about the potential for clashes in the South China Sea,” Willard, the top U.S. military commander in the Asia-Pacific region, told reporters today in Kuala Lumpur. “Yes, I am concerned anytime that I see tensions arise, and confrontations take place, within this very strategic and important area to all of us.”

China claims most of the South China Sea as its own, dismissing rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia. Exxon Mobil Corp., Talisman Energy Inc. and Forum Energy Plc are all planning exploration activities in blocks with Chinese claims.

The Philippines is “alarmed” by the increase in Chinese “incursions,” Gazmin said, adding there had been five or six this year. The latest came during a visit by Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie.

“This really affected me, because we were showing them our hospitality,” Gazmin said. “We want to know if the nation’s leadership knew this was going on.”

China ‘Justified’

China yesterday said it opposes Vietnam’s oil and gas exploration in waters under its jurisdiction and actions to prevent such activities were “justified.” Last week it rejected as “totally unreasonable” a protest by Vietnam over reported plans by China Mobile Ltd.’s parent to expand cellular phone coverage in the disputed Spratly Islands.

The “United States doesn’t take sides in a dispute,” Willard said. “It’s strongly committed to see that the sides within the dispute handle them peacefully and through dialogue and not in confrontation at sea or in the air.”

Maritime disputes may be discussed at the annual IISS Asia Security Summit, The Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore starting June 3 that will include a speech by Liang. At last year’s event, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. opposed efforts to “intimidate” companies operating in the sea.

The U.S. navy has patrolled Asia-Pacific waters since World War II. 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.

--With assistance from Cecilia Yap in Manila. Editors: Ben Richardson, Mark Williams

To contact the reporters on this story: Gan Yen Kuan in Kuala Lumpur at; Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at

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