- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - China has no plans to beef up its naval presence in the South China Sea following a confrontation earlier this month between Chinese boats and a U.S. Navy ship, an official newspaper reported Friday.

The brief comment in the China Daily adds to apparent efforts by Beijing to tamp down the controversy surrounding the March 7 incident in which the USNS Impeccable was surrounded and harassed by Chinese boats.

“Top commanders do not have plans to increase the military presence in the South China Sea following a confrontation earlier this month between a U.S. spy ship and five Chinese vessels,” the paper said, citing unidentified naval sources.

The report gave no additional information, although it quoted government-backed Chinese academics as saying Beijing wanted to put the incident to rest.

“It is time to call an end to it,” Li Jie, a senior researcher at the navy academy, was quoted as saying.

U.S. officials filed a formal diplomatic protest, insisting the unarmed U.S. survey ship was operating legally in international waters and accusing the Chinese of acting in a provocative and dangerous manner. China insists the Impeccable was carrying out sensitive activities within its exclusive economic zone without Beijing’s permission and that its ships were merely enforcing Chinese law.

While Friday’s report appeared to diminish the likelihood of naval clashes, China may be planning to boost its presence in the area through increased patrols by fisheries administration enforcement vessels, China Daily reported Thursday.

Last week, China dispatched a converted naval vessel to patrol fishing grounds surrounding the disputed Paracel Islands, about 400 miles (640 kilometers) south of Hong Kong. China, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim the islands.

China Daily quoted fisheries department director Wu Zhuang as saying additional patrols were needed to handle new “challenges and complications” in overseeing the 1.16 million-square-mile (3 million-square-kilometer) South China Sea, which Beijing claims in its entirety. Five other nations also claim it in part or in whole.

While Beijing seems inclined to tone down the public rhetoric, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific accused China on Thursday of an “aggressive and troublesome” confrontation.

Adm. Timothy Keating told senators at a hearing in Washington that the naval scrape was among incidents showing that China’s “behavior as a responsible stakeholder has yet to be consistently” shown. In his written testimony, Keating said China’s actions were “unlawful and dangerous.”

“A mature, constructive, military-to-military relationship is hardly a reality today,” Keating said, adding that military contacts with the People’s Liberation Army “fell short of expectations in 2008.”

Also Friday, Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada was to arrive in Beijing for talks on regional cooperation and security issues with Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie and the Communist Party’s No. 2 ranking official, legislative chief Wu Bangguo, the Japanese embassy said

China and Japan have sparred over ownership of an uninhabited island group known as Diaoyutai in Chinese and the Senkakus in Japanese, as well as overlapping claims to undersea gas deposits in the East China Sea.

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