Joel D Adriano
Escalating tensions between China and Southeast Asian claimants to the Spratly Islands threaten to spill over into a full-blown conflict. The Philippines and Vietnam are at particular loggerheads with Beijing after a series of provocations that some believe show China is taking a more assertive stance on its claims in the potentially oil and gas rich maritime area.
Vietnam last week accused China of "intentionally" attacking one of its survey ships in an area inside its exclusive economic zone. It represented the second a Chinese vessel confronted a Vietnamese one in the area over the last two weeks. On Thursday, China sent patrol ships into the sea to "protect maritime security," according to the official Beijing Daily.
The tension has fueled anti-Chinese sentiment across Vietnam, with thousands taking to the streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to protest Chinese naval operations in the disputed waters and Vietnamese hackers launching cyberspace attacks on official Chinese websites.
China has also crossed swords with the Philippines through repeated intrusions on Philippine-claimed islands in the Spratlys. China has dismissed the accusations as "rumors" even as Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Liu Jinchao during a news conference warned Asian neighbors to stop oil and gas explorations in areas Beijing considers as part of its sovereign territory.
The two countries have swapped high-level diplomatic protests to stake their claims. The Philippines cited six Chinese intrusions from February to May in a protest filed with the United Nations earlier this month. The incidents include the Chinese navy firing on Filipino fishermen, a Chinese vessel intimidating a Philippine oil exploration ship and Beijing putting posts and buoys in waters claimed by Manila.
Manila is also protesting China's construction of new structures on islands it claims. Senator Francis Pangilinan criticized China's actions as "unbecoming of a world power". For its part, China submitted a diplomatic note to the United Nations claiming that the Philippines invaded the Spratlys in the 1970s - a claim that security analysts consider ridiculous given the pathetic state of the Philippine navy.
Ambassador Liu said that the Chinese ships took action to keep Filipino fishermen from its "jurisdiction" despite the fact the areas claimed by China are geographically very close to the Philippines.
For instance, the Reed Bank area where one incident took place is just 80 nautical miles (148 kilometers) from Palawan, the Philippines' western-most province, but is nearly 500 miles (800 kilometers) from China.
The Kalayaan islands and the Scarborough Shoal are both closer to Palawan than to any of the other claimants and lie within its archipelagic baselines - the only claimant who can make such a geological claim.
United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was in the Philippines on May 30 for talks related to bilateral defense ties, warned the competing claims could cause instability in the region and that clashes could erupt unless nations with conflicting claims adopt a mechanism to settle disputes peacefully.
The Spratly islands, named after English mariner Richard Spratly, are part of a group of more than 650 islands, islets, reefs, cays and atolls in the South China Sea. They comprise less than five square kilometers of land area spread over more than 400,000 square kilometers of sea.
The disputed islands are largely uninhabited but include important shipping lanes and are believed by some to hold major reserves of oil and gas. They are claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam . The area is considered by US intelligence as one of the eight top flashpoint areas in the world, according to reports.
Tensions could escalate further after a live ammunition military exercise earlier this week by Vietnam and an earlier joint US-Philippine exercise in the disputed waters. The Philippines is also upping the ante against China with plans in congress to formally rename the South China Sea to the West Philippine Sea.
In filing the resolution, Akbayan party-list representative Walden Bello said the South China Sea name is a misnomer which China is using and which has given it undue advantage in its territorial claim. By renaming it "we are taking a proactive move that strengthens our claim", Bello said.
The Philippine government used the new name officially for the first time last Friday during a news briefing on the issue. Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Eduardo Malaya explained that the name West Philippine Sea is reflective of its proper geographic location. Media organizations in the Philippines have also started using the new name.
Political analyst Ed Dagdag of the University of the Philippines' Asian Center suggested that government officials including the presidential spokesperson should refrain from making inflammatory statements if they want to settle the dispute peacefully.
Dagdag believes that if a military confrontation breaks out that the US, a key Philippine military ally, would be unlikely to side with the Philippines due to the risk of being dragged into a potential major conflict with China. Gates stressed during his Philippines visit that the US has "no position" on the competing Spratly claims.
Despite the posturing and rhetoric, the Philippines will be hard-pressed to prevent future Chinese incursions and construction in the contested area. Philippine President Benigno Aquino, along with other claimant Southeast Asian states, has said they prefer to strike a multilateral solution to the dispute - in stark contrast to China's position of insisting on bilateral negotiations. But because China has balked at suggestions the US play a mediating role, tensions in the South China Sea are set to get hotter before cooler.
By Jian Junbo
LONDON - Recent signs indicate that Beijing is making subtle changes in its policy toward Libya so that it may play safe in the ongoing crisis in the North African country by hedging against potential risks.
As reported by China's state media, on June 8 in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met Abdelati Obeidi, secretary of the General People's Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation of Libya who also acts as the Tripoli regime's special envoy to China, to "discuss the current situation in Libya and exchange views on the resolution of the crisis".
On the very next day, however, Chen Xiaodong, director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Northwest Asia and Africa Division, said in an interview with Chinese media that China intended to keep contact with the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council of Libya, the rebel group fighting the Tripoli regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
For this purpose, Beijing would like to invite representatives of the rebel group to visit China, Chen said. Moreover, he stressed that to pave the way for a political resolution of the ongoing crisis, China had increased its efforts to persuade all parties in the conflict to start dialogue.
Indeed, according to a spokesperson of China's Foreign Ministry, even before the Tripoli delegation's visit to Beijing, Chinese ambassador to Qatar Zhang Zhiliang had met Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of the transitional council.
In addition, the minister-counselor of the Chinese Embassy in Egypt, Li Lianhe, visited Benghazi, "mainly to learn about the humanitarian situation and the fate of Chinese state-companies there". At the same time, he made contact with leaders of the transitional council.
Such words and deeds by senior Chinese officials show signs of Beijing making subtle changes in its policy toward Libya in at least two dimensions since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led air strikes against the Gaddafi regime began in February.
First, Beijing now wants to become more proactively involved in the Libya crisis, giving up its hitherto stance of remaining a bystander. Second, it wants to deal simultaneously with the two sides - the Tripoli regime and the opposition - practically giving up its long-standing principle of non-intervention in another country's internal affairs.
These changes can be more clearly seen and understood by looking back at the evolution of China's stance on the Libya crisis.
In March, China, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), abstained from instead of vetoing UN Resolution 1973, which allowed for a no-fly zone in Libya. This was mainly not to offend the League of Arab States and the African Union, which wanted the resolution to be adopted.
However, China soon realized it had lost some prestige in developing countries, especially in the Arab world, because its abstention encouraged the West to interfere in Libya - a sovereign state - by backing the rebels. So China had to strongly oppose the NATO-led bombing in Libya shortly after it started.
As the conflict between Tripoli and the NATO-supported Benghazi became a seemingly endless tug-of-war, China turned to remaining silent, apart from occasional rhetoric and diplomatic words.
This has changed, with Beijing wanting to play the role of peacemaker, and to do this it has to be in contact with both sides - while at the same time not taking sides.
The primary reason for this is that China wants to maximize its national interests, that is, to be positioned to deal with whoever eventually emerges as the victor as it has considerable investments in Libya. This is mainly in the energy and construction sectors.
Some Chinese project contractors, including China Gezhouba Corp as well as China Railway Construction and Metallurgical Co, have projects in Libya. Most Chinese companies have either withdrawn or stopped operations and many people have been evacuated.
A spokesperson for ZTE Corp, the second-largest telecommunication equipment maker in China, said 88 staff members had been evacuated. ZTE Corp is the largest telecommunication equipment provider in Libya, and has made investments worth 3 billion yuan (US$457 million) since 1999.
Beijing's adoption of a hedging policy violates its non-intervention principle, but there is no reason to jump to the conclusion that this signals China is to totally abandon the principle - this is not the first time it has happened.
Before the Darfur crisis was resolved in Sudan, China actively contacted the rebel groups of South Sudan, and even signed economic contracts with them and established an agency in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, while it still recognized the Khartoum regime as the legitimate authority of Sudan at that time.
China can certainly help with crisis-resolution in Libya since it will have links with both parties and will also cooperate with Western powers as a permanent member of the UNSC.
Yet China still has to learn to manage a complicated international situation, while at the same time adhering to its diplomatic principles or philosophy. In this sense, China is still a newcomer and will have much more to learn before it grows into a sophisticated and responsible player in the international arena.