08/01/2012, 00.00
CHINA - ASIA

South China Sea: Beijing denies tough stance, yet continues expansion

For Chinese military leaders, Beijing's recent actions are designed to safeguard national interests and "lawful rights". China continues to favour a bilateral approach, but still interferes with the economic plans of its neighbours and criticises Japan over its territorial claims in the East China Sea.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The Chinese military has denied adopting a tough approach in handling territorial disputes in the South China Sea, claiming instead that its recent moves in the disputed waters, including the establishment of a garrison on Sansha, were intended to safeguard national interests. At a press briefing on the nation's defence strategy ahead of today's 85th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army, the military said China wanted to maintain friendly ties with other countries and engage in bilateral dialogue to settle territorial disputes. Neither the Philippines nor Vietnam are convinced. Both nations have the claims in the disputed waters and want a comprehensive and binding agreement for the whole area. Meanwhile, a liberal-leaning general was promoted within China's People's Liberation Army, a move designed, some experts believe, to project a softer, more open image.

"It is not appropriate to link the legitimate activities of the PLA in safeguarding the lawful rights of China to any suggestion China is acting tough towards other countries," said Geng Yansheng, a senior colonel and a National Defence Ministry spokesman.

Recent moves by China in the South China Sea, including setting up a garrison in the Paracels, were intended to "safeguard China's sovereignty, territorial integrity, maritime rights and interests. These activities are not targeted at any country or any party," he said.

Higher defence spending, he explained, reflects only a desire to modernise the forces, which have been far weaker than those of other countries like the United States.

China has also criticised Japan, after Tokyo released its annual defence report, describing Tokyo's claims in the East China Sea and its characterisation of China's growing military might as irresponsible and mistaken.

According to the Japanese report, relations between the People's Liberation Army and the Communist Party leadership were "getting complex", and that there was a possibility that the degree of military influence on foreign policy decisions was changing.

In Beijing, state media said Tokyo's warnings were "mistaken" and that the report would further jeopardise Sino-Japanese ties,

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, an oil exploration tender for three oil and gas exploration blocks in the South China Sea was a partial flop.

President Benigno Aquino's government accepted four bids for what was touted as the country's biggest exploration tender. Only six firms showed up for the bidding out of the 38 domestic and foreign firms that had pre-qualified.

Energy officials were quick to play down the territorial dispute as a reason for the poor turnout. "We don't think the tension in the West Philippine Sea [its term for the South China Sea] area had a negative impact on our efforts," Jose Layug, an energy department undersecretary, said.

Nonetheless, "No one can afford to upset the Chinese and be marginalised in the Chinese market," said Gordon Kwan, the Hong Kong-based head of regional energy research at Mirae Asset Securities. Only businesses "with no chance in China" could afford to bid.

In the South China Sea, the Spratly and Paracel Islands are potentially rich in oil and gas. China, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Philippines and Malaysia have a claim to part of the sea.

Manila and Hanoi have accused Beijing of conducting an aggressive and imperialist policy that has led to incidents involving fishing boats from all three nations.

Tensions between Manila and Beijing rose in April when Chinese patrol boats blocked Filipino Navy ships trying to stop Chinese trawlers off the Scarborough Shoal, which Manila claims.

Beijing's hegemonic aims also worry the United States, which has increased its naval presence in the Pacific.

In light of the situation, China has tried to project a softer image to the outside world. The recent promotion of Liu Yazhou from lieutenant general to full general can be seen as part of China's leadership's attempt to refashion its image as open-minded and inclusive, analysts say.

Liu, 60, has been supporting democracy since the early 1980s and has warned that China must embrace US-style democracy or accept a Soviet-style collapse.

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