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Talk of the Day -- South China Sea standoff signals Beijing strategy changes

2012/04/21 21:09:38

The Philippine government accused China Friday of escalating a 10-day standoff in a disputed area of the South China Sea by dispatching a third patrol ship to an island group over which both countries claim sovereignty.

The row over the group of islands, known as the Scarborough Shoal in the Philippines and as Huangyen Island in Mandarin Chinese, erupted April 10 when Philippine authorities accused Chinese fishermen of poaching in their territorial waters.

It is one of the most high-profile flare-ups in recent years between the two countries over their conflicting territorial claims to all or parts of the South China Sea that are also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.

The standoff is being closely watched to see how far China will go in its increasingly assertive stance on territorial claims in the region.

Local political pundits said the incident could signal a change in China's strategy toward competing territorial claims. Up until recently, China has tended to react rhetorically rather than with provocative actions, they said, adding that this might not be the case anymore.

The following are excerpts from a special report in Saturday's edition of the Taipei-based China Times on the latest China-Philippines standoff and the changing Chinese strategy toward disputed territorial claims:

China's state-run Xinhua news agency said Friday that the latest Chinese patrol ship was deployed only after the Philippines declined to withdraw a coastguard vessel from the Scarborough Shoal, which is about 120 nautical miles west of the main Philippine island of Luzon.

The fresh territorial rift was sparked last week when two Chinese ocean surveillance ships blocked a Philippine warship from arresting dozens of Chinese fishermen. According to the Beijing authorities, the fishermen were taking refuge from harsh weather in a lagoon. The fishermen then slipped away from the area, which angered the Filipino officials.

The Philippines later replaced the warship with a coast guard patrol boat that faced off with the two Chinese vessels, with each side demanding that the other pull out first.

On April 20, a 108-meter highly advanced Chinese patrol vessel also arrived on the scene, bringing to three the number of Chinese ships in the disputed area.

China's refusal to end the standoff quickly came as a bit of a surprise to the world.

Some local political analysts said China seems to be using its current row with the Philippines to find feasible strategies for dealing with similar territorial disputes with other Asian neighbors such as Vietnam over the South China Sea and Japan over the Tiaoyutai Islands in the East China Sea.

In the past, China has normally issued diplomatic statements or has merely taken symbolic action to assert its sovereignty claims over disputed areas.

Beijing's leaders seem to have changed their tack and appear determined to take stronger action to accentuate their territorial claims, local political mavens familiar with China affairs said.

They cited the increasing presence of Chinese maritime surveillance ships in waters around the Tiaoyutai Islands to back their observation on China's shift in attitude.

The Tiaoyutai Islands, known as the Diaoyutai Islands in China, are also claimed by Taiwan.

Despite its increasingly assertive stance on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, however, China does not intend to resort to full-scale military conflicts to resolve such issues at the moment, the analysts said.

China's wariness about igniting a military conflict with the Philippines is reflected in its avoidance of sending warships to the controversial region, the pundits said, adding that China has instead deployed coast guard patrol ships or ocean surveillance vessels. (April 21, 2012).

(By Sofia Wu)