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Politics

Tensions high between China, neighbors over South China Sea

China recently built an airstrip on this reef in the South China Sea.

MANILA -- The Philippines and Vietnam are beefing up their military presence in the South China Sea amid fresh concerns over China's island-building on disputed territory there.

     Easing tensions in the region is likely to be a major item on the agenda at several regional meetings scheduled for this week in Kuala Lumpur. Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are slated to meet Tuesday. An ASEAN Regional Forum will be held Thursday, with the list of participants to include the 10 ASEAN members, the European Union, China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the U.S.

     A representative from the Philippines' defense ministry told reporters July 16 that the former U.S. naval base in Subic Bay is the best place for the country to build up its air force. After the U.S. pulled out of the base in 1992, Manila converted it into a free economic zone. Part of the installation will be used to house fighter jets ordered from South Korea and frigates as early as 2016. The move is being made with an eye toward Scarborough Shoal, a reef about 200km west of Subic Bay that Beijing has effectively controlled since 2012, anchoring vessels there.

     The Philippines is not the only Southeast Asian country worried about Beijing's activities in the South China Sea. Vietnam has stationed four submarines supplied by Russia at a base in Cam Ranh Bay and plans to add two more as early as this year. The base is just 800km from the Spratly Islands, the site of a Chinese island-building project, and 600km from the Paracel Islands.

     China is Vietnam's biggest trade partner and the head of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, of which Vietnam is a founding member. Despite these strong economic ties, Hanoi still harbors diplomatic concerns. Vietnamese Communist Party head Nguyen Phu Trong visited the U.S. in July to meet with President Barack Obama. Vietnam could receive weapons from the U.S.

     Malaysia sent military vessels near the Luconia Shoals recently to monitor a Chinese ship, Agence France-Presse reported.

     While Beijing announced in late June that it had finished its land reclamation work in the South China Sea, it has continued constructing facilities since then. One is a roughly 3,000-meter airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef that can accommodate fighter jets.

     The Chinese military held a large live-fire drill in the region in late July, according to Chinese media, in what was likely an attempt to stifle criticism ahead of the ASEAN Regional Forum. The South China Sea has key sea lanes used by ships carrying such resources as crude oil from the Middle East. It is also important militarily, since its deep waters make submarines tough to spot. Beijing is standing by its claim of indisputable sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea.

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