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Philippine leader to discuss Spratlys with China

By Jim Gomez

Asssociated Press

LAST UPDATED: 07:16 a.m. HST, May 22, 2011

MANILA, Philippines >> Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said Sunday he will talk to China's visiting defense chief about how to prevent territorial spats in the South China Sea that could trigger a larger conflict, including the need for a stronger accord to restrict aggression in the region.

Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie arrived Saturday for talks with his Filipino counterpart Voltaire Gazmin and a meeting with Aquino on Monday. His visit comes amid renewed tension over the disputed Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China, the Philippines and four other Asian countries and territories.

The Spratlys and other potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea territories have long been regarded as a potential flash point for conflict in Asia. Washington has expressed concerns that the disputes could hamper access to one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes.

Asked if he will raise the territorial disputes in his meeting with Liang, Aquino said he would discuss how occasional spats can be avoided.

"The end point is hopefully these incidents could be reduced, otherwise a conflict might really happen," Aquino told reporters. "We should talk, instead of all these sorts of incidents occurring."

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes the Philippines and three other countries that claim the Spratlys, signed a nonbinding accord with China in 2002 that discourages aggressive behavior that could spark a shooting war.

The accord calls on claimants to carry out joint projects to promote harmony. The claimants, however, have failed to agree on the wording of the guidelines needed to pursue such projects.

ASEAN and the U.S. have sought to turn the 2002 accord into a binding "code of conduct" for a stronger guarantee against aggression and possible armed clashes.

Aquino said he has long wanted to discuss with China how such a code could be forged.

Two Chinese patrol boats allegedly harassed a Philippine oil exploration ship into leaving a vast area called the Reed Bank on March 2, prompting a Filipino general to scramble two military aircraft, which arrived at the scene after the Chinese vessels had left, the Philippine military said.

The Philippines protested, saying the Reed Bank, which is near the Spratlys, lies within Philippine territorial waters. China countered by saying that the Spratlys and adjacent waters belong to it.

The Philippine military said Saturday that two unidentified foreign fighter jets were spotted flying near a Spratly island occupied by Filipino troops last May 11. Two Philippine patrol planes failed to identify the jets, which were at a higher altitude and made no hostile moves.

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