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US keeps eyes on Spratly deal

christopher-briefing.jpg By Rodney J. Jaleco
WASHINGTON -. A ranking State Department official said a joint exploration agreement in the disputed Spratly Islands should be fair to all parties, even as the US keeps a close watch of developments in the South China Sea.
“Obviously when you reach agreements of this kind you won’t want new problems,” said Asst. State Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill at a press briefing.
China, the Philippines and Vietnam forged the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JSMU) in 2005, to pave the way for a peaceful resolution of their overlapping claims over the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys – which include Pag-Asa Island that is garrisoned by Philippine troops – is claimed wholly or in part by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
Covering 160,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea, the Spratlys represent a total land area of only 10 square kilometers, according to GlobalSecurity.org. It added, the Spratlys are important because “ownership claims are used to bolster claims to the surrounding sea and its resources”.
The 2008 Defense Department report to the US Congress noted that “The South China Sea plays an important role in Northeast Asian security considerations. Over 80 percent of crude oil supplies to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan flow through the South China Sea.”
“I know that our embassies have followed this issue very closely,” Mr. Hill said. The JSMU is an offshoot of a 2002 ASEAN-China declaration that addressed a “code of conduct” that stressed self-restraint and avoiding acts that might exacerbate tensions over the disputed isles.
But opposition solons have protested the agreement, accusing President Arroyo of violating the Constitution. They alleged the government gave away too much when it signed the JSMU, which Malacanang denies.
The Philippine’s Malampaya and Camago gas fields lie in an area claimed by China.
“We want to make sure this is an agreement that doesn’t create any perception of unfairness on the part of another party,” Mr. Hill said.
US interest stems in part on a wary, cautious eye they keep on Chinese intentions in the area. The Pentagon reported to Congress that “much uncertainty surrounds China’s future course, in particular in the area of its expanding military power and how that power might be used.”
Ken Bailes, press officer at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, said US concerns center around the peaceful resolution of conflicts and ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
The Pentagon report said “Beijing is developing capabilities for use in other contingencies, such as conflict over resources or disputed territories.”
“China has settled territorial disputes with many of its neighbors in recent years,” the report said, but noted that its dispute with Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea, among others, remain to be resolved.
“As China’s economy grows, dependence on secure access to markets and natural resources, particularly metals and fossil fuels, is becoming a more significant factor shaping China’s strategic behavior,” the Pentagon report observed.

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