x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Conciliatory tones from China and US over disputed seas

Beijing and Washington pledges co-operation over the disputed South China Sea, although China has yet to discuss with other Asian nations a proposed code of conduct for the resource-rich region.

BEIJING // China and the United States pledged to work together over the disputed South China Sea, although Beijing has yet to discuss with other Asian nations a proposed code of conduct for the resource-rich region.

At a summit in Cambodia featuring Association of South-east Asian (Asean) members and other regional powers, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and Yang Jiechi, the Chinese foreign minister, issued conciliatory statements about working together to resolve differences over the disputed seas.

Their efforts follow months of growing tensions as nations with territorial claims have ramped up efforts to exploit an area believed to hold some of the world's richest hydrocarbon reserves. In recent months, China and the Philippines have been engaged in a standoff at the Scarborough Shoal area of the South China Sea, while tensions have flared between China and Vietnam over licences to search for hydrocarbons.

Yesterday, on the sidelines of the two-day Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in Phnom Penh, which features foreign ministers from the 10 Asean countries, other Asian powers, the US and the European Union, Mrs Clinton held talks with her Chinese counterpart.

She pledged yesterday Washington and Beijing "not only can, but will work together in Asia", while Mr Yang said the two nations would "properly handle differences on sensitive issues".

The two countries have differed over Washington's engagement in the South China Sea issue, with China angry at what it sees as foreign meddling. Its concerns were heightened by the United States's declared pivot towards Asia as it lessens its focus on the Middle East.

Mrs Clinton has previously asserted though that the US has a legitimate interest in maintaining peace and stability in the area, a key shipping route vital for international trade.

Beijing says almost all of the South China Sea is its own, and wants conflicts with the other countries claiming part of the territory - the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei - to be resolved bilaterally, although yesterday Mrs Clinton emphasised the US took a different view on this.

"Issues such as freedom of navigation and lawful exploitation of maritime resources often involve a wide region. Approaching them strictly bilaterally could be a recipe for confusion and even confrontation," she said, adding that disputes should be resolved "without coercion".

China has not held talks at the forum on a code of conduct for the South China Sea recently proposed by Asean. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman this week said the forum was "not an appropriate venue for discussing the South China Sea".

Reuters yesterday quoted an unnamed US official as saying Mr Yang had indicated to Mrs Clinton that China might be prepared to engage in discussions with South East Asian countries on the code of conduct in September.

But the Philippines' foreign minister denounced Chinese "duplicity" and "intimidation" in the South China Sea.

"If Philippine sovereignty and jurisdiction can be denigrated by a powerful country through pressure, duplicity, intimidation and the threat of the use of force, the international community should be concerned about the behaviour," Albert del Rosario said at the summit, according to an official statement.

Also at yesterday's gathering, Mrs Clinton said she hoped Asean could pressure Iran over its nuclear programme, describing the bloc as "a partner in the broad international effort" to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power and urging the international community "to stay united and to keep up the pressure that has brought Iran back to the negotiating table".


* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse