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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs        25  May 2011

Philippines, China defuse Spratly tensions

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THE Philippines and China have pledged to avoid “unilateral actions” that could further inflame tensions over rival claims to the potentially oil-rich Spratly island chain.

Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie made the commitment during a meeting in Manila, the two sides said in a statement.

“Both ministers recognized that unilateral action, which could cause alarm, should be avoided,” according to the joint statement issued after a closed-door meeting. “Both ministers acknowledge the need to ensure that the South China Sea remains stable,” the statement said.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino 3rd also stressed the need to avoid conflict when he met with Liang later in the day, his spokesman Ricky Carandang said.

“Both sides went out of their way to be very cordial, very conciliatory,” Carandang told reporters.

The Spratlys are a chain of atolls and reefs straddling vital shipping lanes in the South China Sea and are believed to lie atop vast oil and gas deposits.

Apart from China and the Philippines, the islands are claimed in whole or in part by Taiwan, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Vietnam.

In March, Manila complained that Chinese patrol boats had harassed a Philippine oil exploration vessel in disputed waters near the Spratlys.

It subsequently filed a formal protest at the United Nations over China’s claims to the Spratly islands and adjacent South China Sea waters.

Last week, the Philippine military said that it sighted two foreign jets flying over the area, which the local press, citing sources, said were Chinese.

But Gazmin also on Monday said that he did not know if the foreign fighter jets were Chinese, stressing that Philippine airplanes which had seen them could not properly identify their markings because they were flying too high.

President Aquino brought up the two countries’ competing claims in the South China Sea in his talks with Liang but did not cite any of the recent incidents, Carandang said.

“The Chinese government said that they were happy that the Philippines had responded, not in a provocative manner, but had handled things in a very cool way,” he added.

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It is commonplace in journalism to write two types of articles at the transition point between the year that has passed and the New Year. As this writer qualifies as an “old hand” in observing Thailand with a track record dating back 14 years, it is time take a shot at what may unfold in Thailand in 2011.

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