U.S. Boosts Maritime Security Funding for SE Asia, But Says It’s Not About China

December 17, 2013 - 5:12 AM

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China’s assertiveness in backing up territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China Seas has stoked tensions with the U.S. (AP Photo, File)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration has announced new assistance to strengthen maritime security capabilities in Southeast Asia, but quickly distanced the move from current tensions over territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.

Secretary of State John Kerry said in Vietnam on Monday that the U.S. is committing another $32.5 million for maritime law enforcement in the region, including training and new fast-patrol coast guard vessels.

“This assistance will foster greater regional cooperation on maritime issues and ultimately provide the ability of Southeast Asian nations to carry out humanitarian activities and to police and monitor their waters more effectively,” he said after talks with his Vietnamese counterpart in Hanoi.

Kerry then pointed to tensions in the South China Sea, where Vietnam and several other countries are tussling with China over resource-rich waters or islands; and in the East China Sea, where a longstanding China-Japan territorial dispute deepened in recent weeks over China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large area of sea including the disputed islands.

But when asked minutes later how the new maritime security assistance fitted into those concerns, he stressed that it was “not some kind of quickly conceived reaction to any events in the region.”

“This maritime announcement has nothing to do with any recent announcements by any other country or any of the tensions in the region,” Kerry said, adding that the maritime assistance had been planned for some time, and builds on existing agreements and programs.

According to the State Department, the new assistance will include funds for five fast patrol vessels for the Vietnamese Coast Guard, to enhance its capacity in “search and rescue, disaster response, and other activities.”

Funds will also help to strengthen information sharing among national maritime security agencies in Southeast Asia, and provide new maritime law enforcement training courses, it says.

In his comments on the tensions arising from the sovereignty disputes, Kerry said the U.S. was “very concerned by and strongly opposed to coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims” in the South China Sea.

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The Chinese Navy’s aircraft carrier Liaoning, seen here during a 2012 sea trial, was involved in an incident with a U.S. Navy cruiser in the South China Sea on December 5. (AP Photo, File)

China claims historical rights to virtually all of the South China Sea, where it has disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, some of which have given rise to tense standoffs at sea, the firing of warning shots and the severing of ships’ cables.

Kerry urged claimants to pursue their claims peacefully through international institutions, and to move ahead with a regional code of conduct in a bid to reduce the risk of conflict.

He devoted his strongest remarks to the East China Sea and China’s ADIZ announcement, saying that the U.S. neither recognizes nor accepts the zone.

“China should refrain from taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere in the region, and particularly over the South China Sea,” he added.

China says the ADIZ is needed to protect its “state sovereignty and territorial and airspace security,” and requires aircraft to identify themselves and give advance notice of flight plans across the zone, whether or not they are heading for China itself.

‘Respect China’

Since 2010, Beijing has started describing issues of sovereignty and “territorial integrity” in the South and East China Seas as a “core interest,” a term it had previously reserved for priority security issues like Tibet and Taiwan.

The U.S. responded to the push by announcing – at an Association of Southeast Asian nations meeting in Hanoi that year – that it is a U.S. “national interest” to see freedom of navigation and respect for international law in those areas. China in turn deplored what it called “outside interference.”

Apart from the resources at stake in the contested areas, senior U.S. military officers have said that an increasingly assertive China is evidently seeking to minimize foreign military influence in what it calls its “near seas.”

Tensions were underscored by a recent incident in the South China Sea involving a U.S. Navy warship and China’s first and only aircraft carrier.

An official Chinese newspaper claimed Monday that the cruiser USS Cowpens had sailed too close to the carrier Liaoning and its support vessels on Dec. 5.

“If the American navy and air force always encroach near China’s doorstep, ‘confrontation’ is bound to take place,” said the Global Times. “As China’s strength grows, the U.S. should learn to communicate with and respect China if it doesn’t want a collision on the sea or in the air.”

There have been a number of previous such incidents in the South China Sea, where Beijing complains that U.S. Navy survey ships carry out “illegal” surveillance operations.

A 2001 midair collision between a Chinese fighter jet, whose pilot was killed, and a U.S. Navy EP-3 plane on a surveillance mission in the area triggered a serious diplomatic crisis.