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JAKARTA, Nov 30 (Reuters) - China's plan to board and search
ships that illegally enter what Beijing considers its territory
in the disputed South China Sea is a very serious turn of
events, the head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN) said on Friday.
"My reaction is (this is) certainly an escalation of the
tension that has already been building. And it is a very serious
turn of events," ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told
Reuters in a telephone interview.
"It is extremely important to exercise restraint and to try
to approach this development with a level head and be open to
listen to concerns of all parties, all sides," he said.
The South China Sea is Asia's biggest potential military
trouble spot with several Asian countries claiming sovereignty
over waters believed to be rich in oil and gas.
China claims virtually the entire sea. The Philippines,
Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia claim various parts.
The shortest route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans,
the South China Sea has some of the world's busiest shipping
lanes. More than half the globe's oil tanker traffic passes
New rules, which come into effect on Jan. 1, will allow
police in the southern Chinese province of Hainan to board and
seize control of foreign ships which "illegally enter" Chinese
waters and order them to change course or stop sailing, the
official China Daily reported.
"It certainly has increased a level of concern and a level
of great anxiety among all parties, particularly parties that
would need the access, the passage and the freedom to go
through," said Surin, speaking from Thailand.
"The problem is that you can stake the claim, you can
initiate measures and policies but there is that potential of
misunderstanding, miscalculation that could lead to major
tension and major incidents," he said.
The move, if mishandled, could undermine confidence in East
Asia as a locomotive of global economic growth, he said, adding
that whether or not it was legal depended on the positions of
the parties involved.
(Reporting by Matthew Bigg; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)