WASHINGTON DC – A ranking US State Department official said a joint exploration agreement in the disputed Spratly Islands should be fair to all parties, even as the US government keeps a close watch of developments in the South China Sea.
“Obviously when you reach agreements of this kind, you won’t want new problems,” said Assistant State Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill.
China, the Philippines and Vietnam forged what Manila newspapers have dubbed as the “‘Spratlys deal” or the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) in 2005.
Its goal is to tap the oil or gas resources in the area while setting aside territorial claims. The Spratlys – which include Pag-Asa Island that is garrisoned by Philippine troops – is claimed wholly or in part by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
Covering 160,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea, the Spratlys represent a total land area of only 10 square kilometers, according to GlobalSecurity.org. It added the Spratlys are important because “ownership claims are used to bolster claims to the surrounding sea and its resources”.
Important shipping lane
The 2008 Defense Department report to the US Congress noted that “the South China Sea plays an important role in Northeast Asian security considerations.”
“Over 80 percent of crude oil supplies to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan flow through the South China Sea,” it said.
“I know that our embassies have followed this issue very closely,” Mr. Hill said, fielding a question from ABS-CBN”s Balitang America at a recent State Department briefing.
The JMSU is an offshoot of a 2002 ASEAN-China declaration that agreed on a “code of conduct” that stressed self-restraint and avoiding acts that might exacerbate tensions over the disputed isles.
But opposition solons in the Philippines have protested the JMSU, accusing President Arroyo of violating the Constitution. They alleged the government weakened the Philippine claim to the Spratlys when it signed the JMSU, which Malacañang denies.
The Philippine’s Malampaya and Camago gas fields lie in an area claimed by China.
Wary eye on China
“We want to make sure this is an agreement that doesn’t create any perception of unfairness on the part of another party,” Mr. Hill said.
US interest stems in part on a wary, cautious eye they keep on Chinese intentions in the area. The Pentagon reported to Congress that “much uncertainty surrounds China’s future course, in particular in the area of its expanding military power and how that power might be used.”
Ken Bailes, press officer at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, said US concerns center around the peaceful resolution of conflicts and ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
US: China looking to secure access
The Pentagon report said “Beijing is developing capabilities for use in other contingencies, such as conflict over resources or disputed territories.”
“China has settled territorial disputes with many of its neighbors in recent years,” the report said, but noted that its dispute with Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea, among others, remain to be resolved.
“As China’s economy grows, dependence on secure access to markets and natural resources, particularly metals and fossil fuels, is becoming a more significant factor shaping China’s strategic behavior,” the Pentagon report observed.
The most serious incident in the Spratly occurred in 1988 when the Chinese and Vietnamese navies clashed at Johnson Reef that reportedly killed at least 70 sailors.
The Pentagon noted sporadic incidents as late as July 2007 when a Chinese ship allegedly fired on Vietnamese fishing boats, sinking one and killing a fisherman.
Increasing options for Beijing
“Given the apparent absence of direct threats from other nations, the purposes to which China’s current and future military power will be applied remain unknown,” the report said.
“These capabilities will increase Beijing’s options for military coercion to press diplomatic advantage, advance interests or resolve disputes in its favor,” the report warned.
China has three naval fleets – the North, East and South Fleets. The latter, based in Zhan Jiang in between Vietnam and the Philippines, is the China’s principal naval arm in the South China Sea.
The East and South Fleets share a nuclear submarine, 32 conventional submarines, 17 destroyers, 36 frigates, 47 amphibious ships and 35 guided-missile fast attack crafts, according to the US Defense Department report.
“Disagreements that remain with Japan over maritime claims in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian claimants to all or parts of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea could lead to renewed tensions in these areas,” the US report cautioned.
RODNEY J. JALECO
ABS-CBN North America News Bureau