UPDATE: South China Sea developments

Updated On: Oct 27, 2011

Philippines and Vietnam to cooperate in South China Sea

The Philippine and Vietnamese presidents have agreed to strengthen cooperation between their maritime forces in responding to incidents in the South China Sea, where both countries have accused Chinese vessels of aggressive actions in recent months.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino and visiting Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang attended the signing of the maritime agreements after talks in Manila held on Wednesday. The pacts call for information sharing between the Philippine and Vietnamese navies, the creation of a hotline between their coast guards, and collaboration in natural disaster response, smuggling and piracy prevention, and protecting marine resources in the South China Sea.

The two presidents also discussed a 2002 agreement in which ASEAN and China made non-binding promises to peacefully resolve maritime disputes, saying the agreement should be "fully implemented."

During a joint news conference, President Sang said Vietnam supported a Philippine proposal for settling the disputes through international law and the creation of a "zone of peace" in the South China Sea. "We again affirm the importance of the maintenance of peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation in the East Sea (Vietnam's name for the area) to the region as well as to the parties concerned," President Sang said.

President Aquino said, "We agreed that a rules-based approach, adhering to international law... is essential to the pursuit of a peaceful resolution of these issues through multilateral dialogue and consultations."

The Philippines also invited Vietnam to invest in about 15 oil and gas blocks being offered for exploration in areas outside disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Report: Philippines, Vietnam to Cooperate in Responding to South China Sea Incidents(VOA, 26 Oct 2011)

Report: Vietnam backs Philippine sea peace zone plan (AFP, 26 Oct 2011)

Report: Manila, Hanoi forge cooperation on South China Sea (Reuters, 26 Oct 2011)

ExxonMobil finds oil and gas off Vietnam

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil said it has discovered oil and gas off Vietnam's central coast. The US oil company said it "encountered hydrocarbons" while drilling its second exploratory well off the coast of Danang City in August, in an area known as Block 119. A company spokesman said on Tuesday that data from the well are being analysed.

The discovery is important to Vietnam, which is trying to boost oil and gas production as its aging fields are failing to meet growing domestic demand. Vietnam began awarding exploration rights in 2004 to American, Canadian and Indian companies.

The discovery lies in the South China Sea, where state-run PetroVietnam and international oil companies already produce at several major fields in the area. ExxonMobil has a licence from the Vietnamese government to explore areas off the coast of Danang within what Vietnam claims is its 200-mile exclusive economic zone under international maritime law.

However, these areas also fall within Chinese claims to almost the whole South China Sea, also claimed in part by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The area is believed to hold large oil and gas reserves, and also encompasses vital global trade routes and major fisheries.

China has pressed international oil companies, including BP and ExxonMobil, to withdraw from oil and gas exploration deals with Vietnam, according to industry executives and leaked diplomatic cables.

The find brings the territorial dispute over the South China Sea back into focus at a time when both Chinese and Vietnamese leaders have been trying to reduce tensions. China has consistently opposed oil and gas exploration in what it considers its territorial waters.

Report: Exxon Makes Find off Vietnam (Wall Street Journal, 25 Oct , 2011)

Report: US gas find off Vietnam adds to China tension (Financial Times, 26 Oct 2011)

Chinese newspaper warns of "sounds of cannons"  over S. China Sea disputes

In other news, one of China's most popular newspapers warned that nations involved in territorial disputes in the South China Sea should "mentally prepare for the sounds of cannons" if they continue to dispute with China.

The editorial was published on Tuesday by the Global Times which, unlike its parent news agency the People's Daily, is not a platform for official policy and tends to use a stridently nationalistic tone.

The editorial asserted that "China has emphasized its reluctance in solving disputes at sea via military means on many occasions," and accused neighbouring countries of on the other hand "exploiting China's mild diplomatic stance" to push their own agendas.

The editorial writes, "Currently, China's mainstream understanding is that it should first go through the general channels of negotiating with other countries to solve sea disputes. But if a situation turns ugly, some military action is necessary," and that "…public sentiment will influence China's future foreign policy…Thus, the South China Sea, as well as other sensitive sea areas, will have a higher risk of serious clashes."

The editorial warned that "If these countries don't want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons… as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved."

It concluded, "No known method exists to solve these issues in a peaceful way. Although China has proposed a strategy that calls for countries in the region to put away differences and work on shared interests, few have responded… The reality is that each country in the region believes it has what it takes to force China to bow down. China wants to remain calm but it is a lonely role to play. China will have to adjust itself for this reality."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, when asked about the remarks, said that the Chinese government was committed to a peaceful policy towards the sea. "China's media have the right to freely say what they like, but we hope that they play a constructive role and deliver a truthful message," she said.

Report: China paper warns of "sound of cannons" in sea disputes (Reuters, 25 Oct 2011)

Editorial: Don't take peaceful approach for granted (Global Times, 25 Oct 2011)

In response, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario on Wednesday described the editorial as "irresponsible."

"It sounds like a grossly irresponsible, saber-rattling statement in contrast with the Philippine position which seeks a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea rules-based solution to the West Philippine Sea (Philippine name for the South China Sea) issue," Del Rosario said.

Report: DFA chief: China paper's comments on Spratlys row 'irresponsible' (GMA News, 26 Oct 2011)

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