BEIJING // Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are a growing challenge to regional stability, the United States warned yesterday, as analysts said there is little prospect of a legally binding code being developed to regulate the region.
Defence ministers from the Asia-Pacific region met in Vietnam yesterday amid concern about China's increasing assertiveness in territorial disputes. The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, attending the talks in Hanoi between members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and Asia-Pacific powers including China, voiced concerns over regional tensions.
"Disagreements over territorial claims and the appropriate use of the maritime domain appear to be a growing challenge to regional stability and prosperity," he said in an opening speech. Mr Gates added that although the United States "does not take sides", competing territorial claims should be resolved "peacefully, without force or coercion" through collaborative diplomacy. His remarks have been seen as a call to China not to escalate regional tensions following a series of disputes.
Recently, Beijing locked horns with Tokyo over disputed islands near Taiwan, protested when the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said resolving disputes over the South China Sea was in the US national interest, and raised concerns over joint US-South Korean maritime exercises. Washington recently called for an eight-year-old non-binding agreement between China and Asean on South China Sea disputes to be expanded and given legal status.
According to Carl Thayer, a professor of politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, the fact follow-up measures specified in the 2002 accord have not been enacted means there is "no possibility" the agreement will be strengthened further in the next several years. For example, there have been just a handful of meetings since 2004 of a working group between China and Asean relating to conduct in the area. Last year, a briefing paper from the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, warned the agreement "was in danger of becoming irrelevant".
"It sets out a variety of areas, for confidence building and co-operative activities. None of this has been done," Mr Thayer said. China's effective claim for the whole of the South China Sea, a resource-rich area that is also a vital shipping lane, conflicts with the views of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, each of which claims part of the area. Liang Guanglie, the Chinese defence minister, yesterday insisted the region was "generally stable", adding that China was "positive and open to regional security co-operation".
"China's defence development is not aimed to challenge or threaten anyone, but to ensure its security and promote international and regional peace and stability," he said in remarks reported by Agence France-Presse. Despite China's "occasionally muscular approach", the 2002 accord on the South China Sea "more or less holds", according to Alan Chong, a South East Asia security specialist and associate professor at Nanyang Technological University's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
He said he did not see "any possibility" of a legally binding agreement, as this would probably have to involve at least a partial compromise of Beijing's claims in the area. Doing this would be unpopular at home, Mr Chong said, so Beijing must continue to take a hard line, at least publicly. "As long as China does not launch an all-out invasion, [Asean is] quite happy with China firing warning shots," he said.
Beijing is not "willing to risk" escalating tensions to an actual conflict, he said. The fact that China has looked to forge agreements with its neighbours on the joint exploitation of energy resources in the South China Sea indicates "it doesn't make sense" to allow disputes to intensify. Public disagreements over the territory "should't be taken too seriously", he added. "It's just diplomatic shots. It's just reminding everyone, 'Don't push this too far'," he said.
Occasional problems in the area, such as the arrest of fishermen, were not, he said, likely to lead to anything more serious. "If one goes by events in recent history, countries that have competing claims on the South China Sea have so far exercised restraint," said Mely Caballero Anthony, also an associate professor in Singapore's S Rajaratnam School. "Considering the cost of military confrontation, I think this will be a deterrent for states not to be confrontational."
Although Mr Gates's remarks urging restraint were seen as targeting an increasingly assertive China, the two countries have re-established high-level defence ties severed by Beijing in January following US arms sales to Taiwan. On Monday, Mr Gates accepted an invitation from Mr Liang to visit China, a development that made front-page news in Beijing.