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Australia Urged to Defuse South China Sea Tensions

  • Phil Mercer

In this photo taken on Friday, July 20, 2012, Chinese fishing boats sail in the lagoon of Meiji reef off the island province of Hainan in the South China Sea.

In this photo taken on Friday, July 20, 2012, Chinese fishing boats sail in the lagoon of Meiji reef off the island province of Hainan in the South China Sea.

SYDNEY — Australia has been urged to do more to help ease tensions in the South China Sea. China and Vietnam disagree about territorial claims, while other countries, including the United States and the Philippines, have also been drawn into the long-running dispute.

Various nations have argued about territorial rights in the South China Sea for hundreds of years. However, a recent upsurge in tension has raised concern that armed conflict could strike the volatile region.

China bases its claim on a large part of the South China Sea on 2,000 years of history, which it claims gives Beijing a compelling argument for controlling vast swathes of water. Chinese officials argue that the Paracel and Spratly island chains were once important parts of the Chinese nation and could have rich reserves of fossil fuels.

However, Vietnam and the Philippines strongly refute China’s claim.

A Sydney-based think tank, the Lowy Institute, argues that recent tensions increase the chances of violence in the region.

Lowy Executive Director Michael Wesley says the disputes could have global implications.

"The first level is a set of territorial disputes between China and several Southeast Asian countries," he said. "The second level is a dispute between China and the United States over the conditions under which ships pass through this waterway, which conveys about a third of all global shipping. And, I feel that there is a real chance that conflict could break out because of inexperienced maritime forces, with little or no mutual understandings of how to manage maritime incidents."

Wesley is calling on Australia, which has strong military ties to the United States and an entrenched economic relationship with China, to do more to broker a deal in the South China Sea.

"Look, Australia really needs to be more concerned about this issue," he said. "About 54 percent of Australia’s trade passes through the South China Sea, and really what is at stake for Australia here is the outcome of the standoff between China and the United States could have a real effect on the strategic balance of the Pacific Ocean. So we have really big interests in this."

Wesley says that maritime tensions pit communist China and Vietnam against one another, unite usual enemies China and Taiwan, and draw the United States back into partnership with Vietnam.

The regional political bloc ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is continuing to explore new ideas to resolve the dispute.

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