Military chief visits China, says to maintain Asia presence
A crew member on a Chinese trawler uses a grapple hook in an apparent attempt to snag the towed acoustic array of the military Sealift Command ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23) in the South China Sea in this picture taken March 8, 2009, and released March 9. REUTERS

A top military publication in China has warned that the US may be risking an armed confrontation by undertaking a joint military exercise with the Philippines amid maritime tensions between Manila and Beijing over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

The military drills involving nearly 7,000 US and Philippine forces, which began in the South China Sea Monday, has intensified the standoff between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal, also known as the Panatog Shoal.

Although the drills, meant to improve security, are happening in a different region, to the southwest of the disputed rocky reefs, Beijing registered its protest right when it began.

Though the military newspaper commentary is different from a government caveat, it is the sternest warning from Chinese authorities yet pertaining to the territorial dispute surrounding Scarborough shoal.

Anyone with clear eyes saw long ago that behind these drills is reflected a mentality that will lead the South China Sea issue down a fork in the road towards military confrontation and resolution through armed force, the People's Liberation Army newspaper said, according to a Reuters report.

Through this kind of meddling and intervention, the United States will only stir up the entire South China Sea situation towards increasing chaos, and this will inevitably have a massive impact on regional peace and stability.

The Philippines pulled out a warship, replacing it with a coast guard vessel, to de-escalate the situation over Scarborough area off the country's northwestern coast, President Benigno Aquino III said Monday, reported the Associated Press.

Rejecting a Philippine proposal for a peaceful and diplomatic solution for the shoal dispute, China dispatched a military vessel to the South China Sea Thursday, according to report by the China Daily.

Beijing's move signals its determination to protect its maritime interests, dealing a severe blow to the Philippine call for peace.

Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez Friday said that China's move was seen as an escalation of the standoff, which began April 10, when two Chinese ships thwarted the Philippines' effort to arrest several Chinese fishermen accused of illegal entry and poaching near the Scarborough area.

China's growing maritime influence in the region has neighboring nations including Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan worried over territorial confrontations.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including what is recognized by the UN as the Exclusive Economic Zone of other neighbors, according to reports.

China asserts that the islands and waters of the South China Sea, which Manila now calls the West Philippines Sea, were first discovered in the 13th century by a Chinese emperor. Though a Chinese spokesperson recently denied historicity as the reason for the claim, he maintained that China had indisputable sovereignty over all the islands and waters in the South China Sea.

China's position on the South China Sea issue is consistent and clear. China has indisputable sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea as well as their adjacent waters, China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei said during a press meet Feb. 29.

Analysts say South China Sea is increasingly being seen as a region akin to the Persian Gulf. Aside from the issue of sovereignty, energy security is also a major factor behind these competing claims, veteran Filipino journalist Chito Sta. Romana wrote recently. He said the growing tensions between China and the US in the Asian region provided a strategic context that complicates the regional situation. It was difficult to expect an end to this diplomatic tug-of-war in the near future, he added.