June 2, 2017 6:03 am JST

Southeast Asia tends to defenses in South China Sea

Regional players build up island outposts, open up to naval visits as Chinese presence grows

ATSUSHI TOMIYAMA, Nikkei staff writer

HANOI -- With Vietnam welcoming foreign warships to a key port and the Philippines building on a disputed island, Southeast Asian nations are working to reinforce their South China Sea claims in the face of an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Japan's Izumo helicopter carrier -- one of the country's largest naval ships -- made port in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay for the first time May 20 as part of the Pacific Partnership annual humanitarian mission by such countries as Japan and the U.S. A state-affiliated newspaper expressed Hanoi's hope for Japanese involvement in the region.

Located 550km from both the Spratly and Paracel islands, Cam Ranh Bay is a key stronghold in the South China Sea. Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ships first entered the port in April 2016, followed by American and Chinese vessels in October, as the Vietnamese government seeks to strike a diplomatic balance between various countries.

The U.S. granted six patrol ships to Vietnam on May 22. Two days later, America conducted its first freedom-of-navigation operation -- a sail-by through disputed waters -- in the South China Sea since President Donald Trump took office.

Trump "stressed that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows" in a Wednesday meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the White House said in a statement.

Vietnam knows that even as Washington seeks cooperation with the Chinese on North Korea, it is still working to curb Beijing's expansionism in the South China Sea. U.S. Sen. John McCain met with Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich here shortly before the summit. McCain requested that more American vessels be allowed to enter Cam Ranh Bay, according to Vietnamese sources.

Foothold in the Spratlys

The Philippines is cementing its control over an island in the disputed Spratly group, despite President Rodrigo Duterte's overtures to China. Manila abruptly resumed efforts to build coastal facilities and repair the runway at Pag-asa Island, which had been delayed for several years, when its military started transporting cement and wood there early last month. The project is expected to cost a total of 1.6 billion pesos ($32.1 million).

Pag-asa is home to 100-plus Filipinos and a Philippine military presence. By building there, the Philippines is demonstrating its claim of sovereignty over the island, which lies within China's "nine-dash line" claim over most of the South China Sea.

Duterte said at one point that he would visit Pag-asa to raise the Philippine flag. He later changed his mind in a likely effort to secure economic aid from China but is expected to maintain his country's claim over the island.

Meanwhile, Indonesia is believed to have deployed five F-16 fighters and three to five naval frigates to its Natuna Islands. The country is building up a base there, with plans to finish a runway and expand a military port by the end of the year. Indonesia is also considering deploying submarines and buying additional fighters from Russia.

Beijing is steadily expanding its area of effective control in the South China Sea, taking such steps as installing air defense systems on seven artificial islands in the Spratlys. With both Washington and Manila warming up to Beijing, little progress was made on a legally binding code of conduct in the waters at a May meeting between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, an Asian security summit starting in Singapore on Friday, will likely focus on North Korea's continued missile tests. Group of Seven leaders expressed concern over the maritime disputes in May -- provoking a rebuke from Beijing. This time, most countries are expected to shy away from antagonizing China, given its role in restraining Pyongyang.

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