US naval personnel pull the mooring line of the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung Hoon before a US-Philippine joint naval military exercise near the South China Sea on Tuesday. Noel Celis / Agence France-Presse
Beijing - The Philippines and the United States launched regular naval exercises on Tuesday close to the South China Sea, showcasing the US' high-profile military presence in the region at a sensitive time, experts said.
The 11-day exercises, called Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training, kicked off in the Sulu Sea, which is separated from the South China Sea by the Philippine island Palawan, AFP reported.
Two state-of-the-art US missile destroyers, along with the host's World War II-era warships, will patrol the Philippine waters of the Sulu Sea, AFP said.
"We hope relevant parties do more things that are beneficial to regional stability," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular news conference, commenting on the exercises.
The series of joint exercises began in 1995, but its close timing with the recent outbreak of tensions over the South China Sea is suspicious, said Su Hao, head of the Strategy and Conflict Management Research Center at China Foreign Affairs University.
In recent months, disputes over the South China Sea have again come into spotlight with the Philippines accusing Chinese vessels of making repeated intrusions into Philippine-claimed waters.
Meanwhile, Vietnam has accused Chinese vessels of hindering its oil exploration surveys in an area 370 kilometers off its central coast that it claims as an economic exclusive zone.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea, which is believed to have vast oil and gas deposits, while its shipping lanes are vital for global trade.
China has always said its sovereignty over those islands is indisputable and insisted on pushing for a resolution through peaceful negotiation and friendly dialogue according to international law on bilateral platforms.
Su said the Philippines and Vietnam were aware that there were some multilateral events scheduled such as the joint military exercises and Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore earlier this month, and "brought things up on purpose".
"The (Philippine-US) military exercise comes at a sensitive time," said Su, noting that the US "has showcased its high-profile military presence in the South China Sea".
The US is also scheduled to stage similar exercises with Vietnam next month, although it has insisted they too are unrelated to the South China Sea tensions, according to AFP.
"The US is unlikely to go so far as to support the Philippines' sovereignty claims," said Su, "as what concerns the US is that China's claiming of rights in the South China Sea will harm its interests in this region".
The US Senate on Monday unanimously approved a resolution that "deplores the use of force by naval and maritime security vessels from China in the South China Sea" and urges a "multilateral, peaceful process to resolve these disputes", according to AFP.
Hong said the disputes "should be resolved through direct negotiations between the directly concerned parties" and that freedom of navigation has "never been influenced".
The US Senate resolution "does not hold water", Hong said. "We hope relevant senators will do more to promote the peace and stability of the region."
Ye Hailin, a researcher with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the US isn't seeking to provoke relevant countries in the region to launch direct conflicts with China. What the US actually wants to see is an "unstable situation" in the region so it can be "a coordinator and leader in negotiations", Ye said.
"It is most beneficial for the US, as a factor of intervention outside of the region, to have regional countries in disputes but not going as far as fighting with each other, so they turn to the US for help," Ye said.
"The US will continue with its plots out of such a motive," Ye said.
(China Daily 06/29/2011 page11)