China says U.S. military in South China Sea not good for peace

By Cate Cadell

BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States often sends ships and aircraft into the South China Sea to “flex its muscles” and this is not good for peace, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday, after a U.S. aircraft carrier group sailed into the disputed waterway.

The strategic South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade flows each year, has long been a focus of contention between Beijing and Washington, with China particularly angered by U.S. military activity there.

The U.S. carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and accompanied by three warships, entered the waterway on Saturday to promote “freedom of the seas,” the U.S. military said, just days after Joe Biden became U.S. president..

“The United States frequently sends aircraft and vessels into the South China Sea to flex its muscles,” the foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told reporters, responding to the U.S. mission.

“This is not conducive to peace and stability in the region.”

China has repeatedly complained about U.S. Navy ships getting close to islands it occupies in the South China Sea, where Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan all have competing claims.

The carrier group entered the South China Sea at the same time as Chinese-claimed Taiwan reported incursions by Chinese air force jets into the southwestern part of its air defense identification zone, prompting concern from Washington.

China has not commented on what its air force was doing, and Zhao referred questions to the defense ministry.

He reiterated China’s position that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and that the United States should abide by the “one China” principle.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visited a radar base in the north of the island on Monday, and praised its ability to track Chinese forces, her office said.

“From last year until now, our radar station has detected nearly 2,000 communist aircraft and more than 400 communist ships, allowing us to quickly monitor and drive them away, and fully guard the sea and airspace,” she told officers.

Taiwan’s defense ministry added that just a single Chinese aircraft flew into its defense zone on Monday, an anti-submarine Y-8 aircraft.

Biden’s new administration says the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is “rock-solid”.

The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is the democratic island’s most important international backer and main arms supplier, to China’s anger.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Writing and additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

South China Sea code with Beijing must be legally binding: ASEAN chief

Le Luong Minh, Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the 8th Cambodia-Laos-Myanmar-Vietnam Summit (CLMV-8) and the 7th Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy Summit (ACMECS-7), in Hanoi, Vietnam 26 October 2016. REUTERS/Luong Thai Linh/Pool

By Kanupriya Kapoor and Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) – A maritime code of conduct between Southeast Asia and China must be legally binding to put a stop to “unilateral actions” in the South China Sea, because a previous commitment to play fair had been ignored, the ASEAN secretary general said on Friday.

The Association of South East Asian Nations had not received any guarantees from China in discussions to create a framework for the code within this year, but ASEAN was hopeful a set of rules could be agreed to ward off disputes and militarization, Le Luong Minh told Reuters.

“For ASEAN, such a framework must have substantial elements, and such a code of conduct must be legally binding,” he said in an interview.

Signing China up to a code that it must abide by, and can be enforced, has long been a goal for ASEAN’s claimant members: Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea.

China’s recent decision to work with ASEAN to draw up a framework for a code, 15 years after they agreed to one, has been met with a mix of optimism and scepticism, coming at a time when Beijing races ahead with development of its seven artificial islands in the Spratlys.

It has put radar, runways, hangars and missiles on some of those features, causing alarm in the region and concern about its long-term intentions.

The framework, which all sides hope to finish this year, seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which commits to following international law, ensuring freedom of navigation and not putting people on uninhabited islands and features.

MILITARIZATION ACTIVITIES

“It’s important … because of the complex developments in the South China Sea, especially the reclamation and militarization activities and all those unilateral actions,” Minh said of the code.

“In that context, the need for an instrument which is legally binding, which is capable of not only preventing but also managing such incidents, is very important.”

Making demands of China is something ASEAN states have long been reluctant to do, wary of their economic dependence on their giant neighbor.

ASEAN leaders are meeting in Manila for a summit this week. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday it was pointless discussing Beijing’s contentious activities and no one dared to pressure it anyway.

Experts doubt China would tie itself to a set of rules in a waterway central to its geostrategic ambitions and expect it to drag the process out until ASEAN accepts a weaker code than it wants.

Asked if China had made any assurances it would stick to whatever code was agreed, Minh said: “We don’t have any guarantee, we just have to try our best.”

Minh said the code needed to be more comprehensive than the 2002 DOC, which was only a political declaration.

“It was good if all parties were implementing what was agreed, but that’s not what is happening. The COC (code of conduct), we need a legally binding instrument.”

Minh also urged de-escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula, and said North Korea’s foreign minister had sent a letter to him two weeks ago asking for ASEAN’s support. He did not say what Pyongyang had asked ASEAN to do.

“They expressed concern over what they (perceive) to be the threat to their security,” he said. “They especially mentioned the joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.”

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Japan plans to send largest warship to South China Sea

FILE PHOTO: A helicopter lands on the Izumo, Japan Maritime Self Defense Force's (JMSDF) helicopter carrier, at JMSDF Yokosuka base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, Japan,

By Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan plans to dispatch its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea beginning in May, three sources said, in its biggest show of naval force in the region since World War Two.

China claims almost all the disputed waters and its growing military presence has fueled concern in Japan and the West, with the United States holding regular air and naval patrols to ensure freedom of navigation.

The Izumo helicopter carrier, commissioned only two years ago, will make stops in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka before joining the Malabar joint naval exercise with Indian and U.S. naval vessels in the Indian Ocean in July.

It will return to Japan in August, the sources said.

“The aim is to test the capability of the Izumo by sending it out on an extended mission,” said one of the sources who have knowledge of the plan. “It will train with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea,” he added, asking not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

A spokesman for Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force declined to comment.

Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei also claim parts of the sea which has rich fishing grounds, oil and gas deposits and through which around $5 trillion of global sea-borne trade passes each year.

Japan does not have any claim to the waters, but has a separate maritime dispute with China in the East China Sea.

Japan wants to invite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has pushed ties with China in recent months as he has criticized the old alliance with the United States, to visit the Izumo when it visits Subic Bay, about 100 km (62 miles) west of Manila, another of the sources said.

Asked during a news conference about his view on the warship visit, Duterte said, without elaborating, “I have invited all of them.”

He added: “It is international passage, the South China Sea is not our territory, but it is part of our entitlement.”

On whether he would visit the warship at Subic Bay, Duterte said: “If I have time.”

Japan’s flag-flying operation comes as the United States under President Donald Trump appears to be taking a tougher line with China. Washington has criticized China’s construction of man-made islands and a build-up of military facilities that it worries could be used to restrict free movement.

Beijing in January said it had “irrefutable” sovereignty over the disputed islands after the White House vowed to defend “international territories”.

The 249 meter-long (816.93 ft) Izumo is as large as Japan’s World War Two-era carriers and can operate up to nine helicopters. It resembles the amphibious assault carriers used by U.S. Marines, but lacks their well deck for launching landing craft and other vessels.

Japan in recent years, particularly under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been stretching the limits of its post-war, pacifist constitution. It has designated the Izumo as a destroyer because the constitution forbids the acquisition of offensive weapons. The vessel, nonetheless, allows Japan to project military power well beyond its territory.

Based in Yokosuka, near to Tokyo, which is also home to the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s carrier, the Ronald Reagan, the Izumo’s primary mission is anti-submarine warfare.

(Additional reporting by Martin Petty in Manila; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. sees new Chinese activity around South China Sea shoal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has seen Chinese activity around a reef China seized from the Philippines nearly four years ago that could be a precursor to more land reclamation in the disputed South China Sea, the U.S. Navy chief said on Thursday.

The head of U.S. naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, expressed concern that an international court ruling expected in coming weeks on a case brought by the Philippines against China over its South China Sea claims could be a trigger for Beijing to declare an exclusion zone in the busy trade route.

Richardson told Reuters the United States was weighing responses to such a move.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.

Richardson said the U.S. military had seen Chinese activity around Scarborough Shoal in the northern part of the Spratly archipelago, about 125 miles west of the Philippine base of Subic Bay.

“I think we see some surface ship activity and those sorts of things, survey type of activity, going on. That’s an area of concern … a next possible area of reclamation,” he said.

Richardson said it was unclear if the activity near the reef, which China seized in 2012, was related to the pending arbitration decision.

Asked about Richardson’s statement, Lu Kang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said it was hypocritical for the United States to criticize China for militarizing the region when it carries out its own naval patrols there.

“This is really laughable and preposterous,” he said.

The Philippine foreign ministry said it had yet to receive a report about Chinese activity in Scarborough Shoal.

A Philippine military official who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media said he was unaware of a Chinese survey ship in the area.

“China already has de facto control over the shoal since 2012 and they always have two to three coastguard ships there. We are also monitoring their activities and movements,” the official told reporters.

Richardson said China’s pursuit of South China Sea territory, which has included massive land reclamation to create artificial islands elsewhere in the Spratlys, threatened to reverse decades of open access and introduce new “rules” that required countries to obtain permission before transiting those waters.

He said that was a worry given that 30 percent of the world’s trade passes through the region.

Asked whether China could respond to the ruling by the court of arbitration in The Hague by declaring an air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, as it did to the north, in the East China Sea, in 2013, Richardson said: “It’s definitely a concern.

“We will just have to see what happens,” he said. “We think about contingencies and … responses.”

Richardson said the United States planned to continue carrying out freedom-of-navigation exercises within 12 nautical miles of disputed South China Sea geographical features to underscore its concerns about keeping sea lanes open.

JOINT PATROLS?

The United States responded to the East China Sea ADIZ by flying B-52 bombers through the zone in a show of force in November 2013.

Richardson said he was struck by how China’s increasing militarization of the South China Sea had increased the willingness of other countries in the region to work together.

India and Japan have joined the U.S. Navy in the Malabar naval exercise since 2014, and were due to take part again this year in an even more complex exercise that will take place in an area close to the East and South China Seas.

South Korea, Japan and the United States were also working together more closely than ever before, he said.

Richardson said the United States would welcome the participation of other countries in joint patrols in the South China Sea, but those decisions needed to be made by the countries in question.

He said the U.S. military saw good opportunities to build and rebuild relationships with countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and India, which have all realized the importance of safeguarding the freedom of the seas.

He cited India’s recent hosting of an international fleet review that included 75 ships from 50 navies, and said the United States was exploring opportunities to increase its use of ports in the Philippines and Vietnam, among others – including the former U.S. naval base at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay.

But he said Washington needed to proceed judiciously rather than charging in “very fast and very heavy,” given the enormous influence and importance of the Chinese economy in the region.

“We have to be sophisticated in how we approach this so that we don’t force any of our partners into an uncomfortable position where they have to make tradeoffs that are not in their best interest,” he said.

“We would hope to have an approach that would … include us a primary partner but not necessarily to the exclusion of other partners in the region.”

(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales in Manila and Megha Rajagopalan in Beijing; Editing by Peter Cooney and Nick Macfie)

Brunei Bans Public Christmas Celebrations

If you’re planning to celebrate Christmas in Brunei, you could get a five-year prison sentence and a hefty fine.

According to multiple published reports, the predominantly Islamic nation has banned public celebrations of the holiday amid fears that it could damage the faith of the Muslims who live there.

The Brunei Times published a statement from Brunei’s Ministry of Religious Affairs saying that non-Muslims are free to celebrate Christmas privately “among their community,” but they can’t disclose their celebrations or display them to Muslims. Doing so can be viewed as an illegal “propagation of religions other than Islam.”

It’s also illegal for a Muslim to imitate customs of other religions, according to the statement. A Muslim who wears a Santa hat or a Santa suit could be arrested.

British newspaper The Independent reported anyone who violates Brunei’s Christmas laws could be handed a five-year prison sentence and/or a fine of $20,000.

Brunei, on the island of Borneo, introduced the restrictions last year after Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah implemented the controversial, religiously inspired Sharia penal law system. Violating certain laws can prompt punishments like stoning, whipping and dismemberment, drawing widespread criticism.

About 430,000 people live in Brunei, according to data released by the CIA. Islam is the nation’s official religion. About 79 percent of Brunei’s residents are Muslim and 9 percent are Christian.

This month, local religious leaders have warned Muslims in Brunei not to celebrate Christmas.

According to The Borneo Bulletin, imams said “doing anything that amounts to respecting their religion” – referring to Christianity – violates Islamic beliefs. The imams cautioned against doing things like putting up holiday decorations, singing Christmas carols or even lighting candles “as it could affect our Islamic faith.”

The statement from Brunei’s Ministry of Religious Affairs said that enforcement officials visited multiple businesses last year that “publicly displayed Christmas decorations.” It did not say if anyone was punished.

The nation wasn’t alone in imposing restrictions on Christmas celebrations.

According to a report in New Vision, a Uganda newspaper, the government in Somalia banned celebrating Christmas and the New Year in the nation’s capital. Officials gave reasons similar to Brunei’s decision, saying the celebrations could damage Islamic faith – despite the fact that the country is 99 percent Muslim.

New Vision reported Somali religious officials are worried that Christmas celebrations might incite the Al-Shabaab terrorist group to perform deadly attacks.

Some people who live in countries where Christmas celebrations have been restricted are sharing photos of their Christmas trees on social media using the hashtag #MyTreedom.

A Facebook page devoted to the cause had more than 27,000 likes as of Wednesday afternoon, and was displaying images purported to be from countries like Iraq, Nigeria and Syria.

Brunei Begins Enforcement of Strict Sharia Law

The Sultan of Brunei has announced the first phase of enforcement of strict Sharia law in the nation.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, an absolute dictator in the nation, said that he had no choice under Islam to put the Sharia law into effect.

The first phase of the implementation will include fines and jail terms for offenses such as missing Friday prayers or an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.  The second phase will include the severing of limbs if convicted of robbery or theft, and stoning to death for adultery.

The Sultan has called Islam a “firewall” against globalization.

The move is causing unrest and dissent in the country.  The new law will also allow the government to give jail terms or sentences of flogging to anyone who challenges the leader or makes any comment the government feels is disparaging toward the Sultan.

Critics worldwide say the move is a move to brutality.

“It’s a huge step back for human rights in Brunei and totally out of step with the 21st century,” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told The Guardian.

Brunei To Install New Strict Sharia Law

The sultanate of Brunei has announced that a new code of laws based on a strict interpretation of Sharia Law will go into effect in six months.

The law allegedly will only be enforced on Muslims.

Brunei already had stricter Islamic laws than many surrounding nations including the banning of alcohol. The new law will allow death by stoning to anyone convicted of adultery and the severing of limbs for theft.

Punishments for consuming alcohol could include public flogging. Ironically, abortion is not considered murder than would only be punished by flogging.

Brunei’s Islamic laws had been limited mostly to family courts as the criminal code has been similar to the country’s days as a British protectorate. The sultan pledged to give judges discretion in sentencing of convicts.