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Asia nervous over plane situation

TOKYO (AP) – Peace talks between North and South Korea. Territorial disputes in Southeast Asia. Billions of dollars in international business and oil shipping lines.

Now that the Bush administration has warned that the standoff over a U.S. spy plane could damage Washington-Beijing ties, countries in Asia are taking stock of the price they could pay should tensions escalate.

While signs of an impact so far are minimal, many in the region are urging Washington and Beijing to settle the problem quickly before the conflict gets out of hand.



”We don’t want to see any escalation,” said Kazuhiko Koshikawa, a spokesman for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. ”We strongly hope this case will be settled in an appropriate and … acceptable manner.”

The plane has been grounded on the Chinese island of Hainan since a collision with a Chinese warplane Sunday, and the United States is demanding release of it and the 24-member crew.



Tensions went up a notch when President Bush warned China of the risk to relations. On Wednesday, Chinese President Jiang Zemin demanded that the United States apologize for the collision.

Governments in the region were keeping a close eye on developments. With good reason: Asia is home to a long list of territorial disputes, high-stakes negotiations and a major chunk of the world economy – and China has a hand in it all.

A major rupture between Washington and Beijing could shake delicate relations with Taiwan, which China claims as a wayward province. As North Korea’s only ally, Beijing also plays a key role in efforts to coax Pyongyang out of its 50-year-old isolation.

The South China Sea, where the U.S. EP-3 collided with a Chinese warplane, is filled with islands claimed variously by China, Vietnam and the Philippines. And companies from the United States, Europe and Japan have greatly expanded their presence in China in the past decade.

Japan was especially interested in a fast solution. Tokyo hosts nearly 50,000 U.S. troops on its soil and depends on shipping lines through the South China Sea to bring it vital Mideast oil.

In Thailand, The Nation newspaper warned in an editorial that security in the region could suffer if the standoff drags on.

”American allies, including Thailand, could be drawn into the standoff if the current friction persists,” the newspaper said Wednesday.

But officials and analysts in the region were also insisting on Wednesday that the spy plane dispute had not had an impact yet – and probably wouldn’t without a major increase in tensions.

At the end of a two-day conference in Manila to discuss South China Sea territorial disputes, both Chinese and Philippine officials played down the influence of the standoff.

”We will look at it as an isolated case,” said Roilo Golez, Philippine national security adviser.

Perhaps the most reliable barometer of military tensions in the region is Taiwan. During tense times in the past, Chinese fighter jets have flown threatening sorties, crossing the Taiwan Strait’s imaginary ”centerline” that divides the rivals.

So far, all was quiet. Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense said there have been no unusual Chinese military movements since the U.S. spy plane was intercepted.

On the Korean peninsula, the sense of trouble was more pronounced. Many in Asia are eager for progress on the rapprochement between the communist North and the capitalist South, and U.S.-China tensions were seen as making that more difficult.

Kim Sung-han, a researcher at the South’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said the problems could hamper Seoul’s plans for four-way peace talks to include both Koreas, the United States and China.

”If U.S.-China relations worsen, it would be very hard to even build the very basic channel of communications to discuss peace,” Kim said.

Regular people in the region so far seem unruffled by the trouble.

In Japan, tourist officials said travelers were not canceling trips to China or expressing safety concerns. And petroleum importers said they hadn’t heard of any ships changing course to avoid the South China Sea.

Stock markets were also being watched closely for signs of volatility.

Losses on Wall Street on Tuesday were being blamed in part on the spy plane dispute, so by the time markets opened in Asia on Wednesday, it was difficult to tell whether slumps were due to the dispute or Wall Street.

”At best, it’s not really helping, particularly in North Asian markets,” said Eddie Lee, Singapore-based economist with Vickers Ballas. ”But it certainly doesn’t look to me like war between the two countries. If it does, it would be very silly.”

AP-WS-04-04-01 0714EDT


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