SOUTHEAST Asian foreign ministers on the eve of a regional summit viewed with “serious concern” the rising tensions in the South China Sea as the United States Seventh Fleet reported sighting two Chinese frigates at the Panatag Shoal where Beijing fired water cannons at Filipino fishermen last January.
A statement drafted by senior officials and will “express our concern at the turn of events and will ask for everyone to act in accordance with international law,” Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.
“Asean needs to be neutral, but Asean cannot stay silent,” Shanmugam said.
President Aquino urged other Asean leaders to face up to the threat posed by China’s contentious claims as they headed to a regional summit.
“For the benefit of the entire region there has to be peace. There should be no mishaps. Mishaps can easily get out of hand. And tensions, mishaps, incidents, if they result in the disputes becoming larger, it’s bad for all of us.”
Ministers agreed on the need for a statement to show how seriously they view the tensions and to maintain Asean’s credibility, Shanmugam said.
“Neutrality is not the same as keeping quiet,” Shanmugam said when asked about the incident at Paracel Islands where China rammed and fired water cannons at Vietnamese coast guard vessels.
Shanmugam made the remarks hours before the U.S. Seventh Fleet said it spotted and photographed two Chinese frigates at Panatag Shoal, one bearing the bow number “572.”
The ships were spotted by MH-60 helicopter flying off the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) during flight operations as part of Balikatan 2014, part of which is being held in Zambales, only 220 km (137 mi) away.
“A Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Navy) vessel is seen from an MH-60 helicopter assigned to USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) while conducting
flight operations in support of maritime security operations in the South China Sea,” the U.S. Seventh Fleet said in a statement.
“The aircraft is part of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron(HSC) 12, underway with the embarked U.S. 7th Fleet staff aboard Blue Ridge, building relationships and furthering interoperability with allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” the statement added.
The Amercian fleet also said that it has around 70-80 ships and submarines at its disposal along with 150 aircraft, and stated that it operates 365 days throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific.
“It’s not uncommon for Seventh Fleet to have ships and aircraft operating simultaneously in the Yellow Sea, East Sea and South China Sea. The Blue Ridge flight operations in the photos are part of our routine presence in international waters, with the goal of providing security and stability for all maritime nations,” it concluded.
The area where the Chinese ships were spotted was in the vicinity of the area where Chinese veseels fired water cannons at Filipino fishermen on Jan. 27 to drive them away from a disputed fishing ground.
The Philippines protested the harassment on Feb. 25 and United States Ambassador Philip Goldberg said the incident was not a permissible course of action in the disputed area.
“Coercion and use of force is not at all a permissible route,” Goldberg said when asked about the incident. He also reiterated the US position that maritime disputes should be settled in a peaceful manner in according with international law.
Peaceful resolution and international law was also the theme of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III as he flew to Myanmar on Saturday for the Asean leaders’ summit.
Aquino urged fellow Southeast Asian leaders to face up to the threat posed by China’s contentious claims to most of the South China Sea as they headed to a regional summit.
Even though not all Asean members are involved in maritime territorial disputes with China, Aquino said the issue concerned the security of the region as a whole.
“We wish to emphasize, uphold and follow the rule of law in resolving these territorial issues so that the rights of all countries involved will be recognized and respected,” Aquino said at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
“This step mirrors our belief that an issue that affects all countries in the region cannot be effectively resolved merely through a dialogue between two countries,” he added.
Later Saturday, the Bureau of Immigration said it will file illegal entry charges against the 11 Chinese fishermen who were arrested at Hasa-Hasa Shoal off Palawan for poaching hundreds of protected marine turtles in waters that are part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Meanwhile, in Washington, several US lawmakers criticized China for its “deeply troubling” actions in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and urged passage of legislation that seeks peaceful solutions to rising maritime tensions.
Communist neighbors China and Vietnam have seen tensions soar since Beijing announced last week it would move a drilling rig into contested waters.
Several collisions in the area have been recorded between Chinese and Vietnamese ships, with each side blaming the other for the incidents.
“China’s recent movement of an oil drilling rig escorted by military and other ships into disputed waters in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam—and the subsequent aggressive tactics used by Chinese ships, including the ramming of Vietnamese ships—is deeply troubling,” the senators said in a statement.
“These actions threaten the free flow of global commerce in a vital region.”
The bipartisan group of six lawmakers, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, are sponsors of a non-binding resolution introduced in April that condemns the use of force and advocates a peaceful diplomatic resolution of territorial and maritime claims.
China and Vietnam, which fought a brief border war in 1979, have been locked in a longstanding territorial dispute over the waters and related oil exploration, fishing rights and sovereignty in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
But Beijing is also locking horns with other Asian nations that have competing claims in the South China Sea, including the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as with Japan in a separate territorial dispute.
In November China set up an “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) over the East China Sea that included contested islands claimed by it and Tokyo, prompting condemnation by Washington.
The senators warned that the ADIZ and Beijing’s “harassment of Japanese vessels around Japanese-administered territory in the East China Sea all raise serious questions about China’s approach to regional security.”
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