Saturday, April 5, 2014

US to skip China fleet review after Beijing snubs Tokyo

HONOLULU — The United States is scrapping plans for a navy ship to join a fleet review in China after its key ally, Japan, was not invited, US officials said, in a move that came just ahead of Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s trip to Japan and China.

The US had been invited to participate in the fleet review — essentially a parade of ships — as part of activities linked to the Western Pacific Naval Symposium to be held this month in Qingdao, an eastern port city.

The US will still participate in the naval symposium and will observe the review, an official said on Thursday.

“We’re not going to put a ship in the actual parade. We’ll observe the parade,” the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that the decision was taken last week and came after a request by Japan.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera told a news conference yesterday that Tokyo would take part in the regularly-held naval symposium, but confirmed that it had not been invited to the fleet review. “Japan is responding calmly, but it is unfortunate that China took such an approach,” he said.

The decision from the US was another sign of troubled Sino-Japanese ties, chilled by a territorial dispute over a group of East China Sea islets.

It also showed the tricky balancing act that Mr Hagel would face over the next week as he moves to reassure Tokyo of Washington’s commitment to its security, while seeking better ties with Beijing. Mr Hagel left yesterday on a trip to Japan, China and Mongolia.

China’s territorial disputes with its neighbours were front and centre for Mr Hagel as he hosted talks in Hawaii with Defence Ministers from South-east Asian nations, which have been grappling with assertive Chinese military moves in the South China Sea. “I told the ministers that the United States is increasingly concerned about the instability arising from the territorial disputes in the South China Sea,” Mr Hagel said at a news conference, calling for all sides to avoid resorting to the “threat of force or intimidation or coercion”.

Mr Hagel said he would speak candidly and directly to officials from China when he travels to Beijing next week and that he would encourage “responsible behaviour”. “The South China Sea and East China Sea — we have differences there. We talk about those differences,” he said as he wrapped up three days of informal talks with ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The ASEAN meeting as well as other steps to enhance the US military’s posture in the Asia-Pacific have been viewed suspiciously by Beijing, which has been increasing military spending. But Mr Hagel rejected the idea that such moves were meant to counter China.

“This area represents tremendous opportunities. The three largest economies in the world are here in the Asia-Pacific — China, Japan and the United States.”

Mr Hagel said he would encourage China to follow international norms and looked forward to a chance to “sit down, close the door and talk very clearly and directly to our friends”. “And I consider the Chinese as friends. We have differences. We are competitors. We disagree in areas. But we’re certainly not enemies,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of things together where we can find some common interests.” REUTERS

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