Asean must tackle China
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Asean must tackle China

China continues to push its presence in the South China Sea in unnecessarily provocative ways. Last week, while Asean leaders were in California for a rare US-sponsored summit, evidence of a new escalation in its muscle-flexing emerged. Satellite photos show Chinese troops finishing the installation of missiles in the Paracel Islands, one of the region's flashpoints. China confirmed the fresh military build-up, and then tried to justify it.

The Chinese missiles have been installed on the refurbished Woody Island. For the past year or so, China has been involved in a feverish campaign to enlarge and improve several shoals and tiny islands in both the Paracels and the Spratlys. Some of these have been expanded to many times the size of airports. Runways, buildings, living quarters and, of course, barracks have gone up almost as fast as diplomatic and military tension around the Spratlys.

China lays claim to the entire Paracels group, which it calls the Xisha Islands. The Paracels also are claimed by Vietnam, and in fact were captured in a Chinese navy invasion from Vietnamese soldiers and fishermen in 1974. To further complicate the situation, Taiwan, in its identity as the Republic of China, makes roughly the same claim to ownership of the entire South China Sea including the Paracels and other island groups.

The Paracels lie roughly halfway between northern Vietnam and the nearest Chinese land, Hainan Island. Further south are the Spratlys, an even more contentious and dangerous area. This is where Chinese expansion was most noticed last year. Taiwan and five Asean members also claim part or all of the Spratlys -- Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Last week, the Israeli commercial satellite company ImageSat International released photos of the Paracels region, taken by one of its Eros imaging satellites. The photos left no doubt as to what China is doing on Woody Island. A long string of missile launchers now dots the new shoreline which was reinforced last year by Chinese dredgers.

Experts say the batteries include surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles. That would indicate a clear intention to threaten or deter ships and planes from going anywhere near the disputed area. China, as always, is attempting to wave off reports of its expansion in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accuses the media of hyping the issue. His spokesman has defended the military build-up by saying that the lethal missiles have a range of "only" 200 kilometres.

Concern over the South China Sea region is not diminishing. At the US-Asean summit, US President Barack Obama appealed for Asean unity, but that again is proving to be unattainable. Nor is it likely, with Laos as the group's 2016 chairman, that Asean will speak with one strong voice, let alone support the strongest anti-Beijing nations, Vietnam and the Philippines.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the new missile installations mean China has reneged on its word, given to him personally. China continues to move oil-drilling rigs in and out of the Paracels group, infuriating Vietnam. In California, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told Vietnamese reporters he has asked directly for a greater US military role in the South China Sea. The Philippines is equally as aggressive over its Spratlys claims, and US navy presence is increasing in that country.

The continued Asean weakness is an impediment at a time when China is expanding its presence and the US is focussing more on Southeast Asia. The South China Sea is of direct concern to all in the region, and it's clear that Asean must face China with strong, diplomatic options. The alternative is chaos and violence.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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