2010/07/22

Strained US-Sino ties loom at Asia security forum - Focus

Strained US-Sino ties loom at Asia security forum - Focus

HANOI, July 22, 2010 (AFP) - Strained US-China military relations will be the elephant in the room as Asia's largest security forum meets in Vietnam on Friday amid tensions over North Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

A US-South Korea naval drill in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) next week is exacerbating tensions ahead of the Hanoi meet, to be attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

Analysts said the 27-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum was unlikely to bring about a thaw in bilateral military ties, which Beijing froze in January over US weapons sales to Taiwan.

"It's the worst it's been in a long time. US-Sino relations are not in a good place right now," said Ian Storey, a fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"Particularly significant is that the two militaries aren't talking and there are a lot of issues that they have to discuss."

China suspended military relations in January after Washington unveiled a 6.4-billion-dollar arms package for Taiwan. In May, China rebuffed a planned visit to Beijing by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

US and South Korean plans to hold a series of naval drills from Sunday in response to North Korea's alleged torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March are the latest source of bad blood between Beijing and Washington.

The drills off the Korean peninsula -- relocated from the Yellow Sea due to Chinese objections -- are designed as a warning to nuclear-armed North Korea over the sinking of the warship with the loss of 46 lives, Gates said.

Pyongyang denies involvement and Beijing has refused to blame its communist ally.
"We resolutely oppose foreign military ships and planes coming to the Yellow Sea and other waters near China to engage in activities that affect China's security interests," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

During a visit to South Korea this week, Gates acknowledged he was "disappointed" at China's rebuff of his scheduled visit in June but said he was willing to move forward.
"I remain open to rebuilding and strengthening military-to-military dialogue between the United States and China because I think it can play an important role in preventing miscalculations and misunderstandings," he said.

Even so, top US commanders have made it clear they are watching China's military buildup, particularly its naval reach into disputed territories in the resource-rich South China Sea.

Speaking to US troops in South Korea on Wednesday, top US officer Admiral Mike Mullen said China's military had made "a fairly significant investment in high-end equipment" including satellites, aircraft, anti-ship missiles and a planned aircraft carrier group.

He called the move a "strategic shift, where they are moving from a focus on their ground forces to focus on their navy, and their maritime forces and their air force".

US officials worry that China's more assertive stance in the Pacific Ocean and its anti-ship missile arsenal, capable of striking aircraft carriers, could undercut America's long-dominant naval power in the region.

Shi Yinhong, an expert on Sino-US military ties at Renmin University in Beijing, said the relocation of the US-South Korea naval drills from the Yellow Sea would not be enough to re-build trust.

"That alone will not help Sino-US relations and the resumption of military ties," he said.

"The opportunity to fully resume military exchanges has been lost due to the military exercises."

Analysts said ASEAN member states would be looking on in horror as their immediate concerns -- such as territorial claims to islands in the South China Sea -- are drowned out by the noise of Sino-US tensions.

Beijing lays claim to the entire sea but ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have claims to the Spratly archipelago, along with Taiwan. Vietnam also claims the more northerly Paracels.

The United States meanwhile demands unfettered access to vital sea lanes in the area.

"The current chill in Sino-US military relations is quite unwelcome at the ASEAN Regional Forum," Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Ernie Bower said.