China rebuffed a U.S. proposal for
countries to refrain from “provocative” acts in the South
China Sea as growing tensions over disputed territorial claims
dominated a meeting of regional foreign ministers.
“It’s no understatement that what happens here matters not
just to this region and to the U.S. but it matters to everybody
in the world,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said
yesterday at the first day of the Asean Regional Forum in
Naypyitaw, Myanmar. “That’s why we’re encouraging claimant
states to consider voluntarily agreeing to refrain from taking
certain actions” that could escalate disputes, he said.
Despite China’s clashes with the Philippines and Vietnam in
the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that talk of
rising tensions was exaggerated and questioned the motives of
those calling for limiting activities in the region.
“We do not agree with such a practice, and we call for
vigilance in the motives behind them,” Wang said yesterday.
“Any proposal to come up with an alternative would only disrupt
discussion of the code of conduct.”
Confrontations between China and some of its Southeast
Asian neighbors have flared in the year since China agreed to
talks on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. As
negotiations stalled, China continued to assert its claims with
ships, an oil rig and by building structures on rocks in waters
thought to be rich in oil and gas, fueling confrontations with
the Philippines and Vietnam.
The Obama administration has been trying to shift its
foreign policy focus to Asia, where it is treaty bound to
protect allies such as the Philippines and Japan, which has its
own simmering territorial spat with China. The U.S. effort to
mediate in the sea disputes has been criticized by China, and
tensions between Wang and Kerry were apparent in Myanmar.
Wang began his press briefing with Kerry by scolding the
secretary of state for keeping him waiting.
“We have been here at 4:30 p.m., waiting for you for more
than half an hour,” Wang said in Chinese through an
interpreter, prompting an apology from Kerry.
Kerry and Wang were participating in the Asean Regional
Forum, a gathering of ministers from the 10-member Association
of Southeast Asian Nations plus foreign ministers from other
countries including the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, South and
North Korea, Australia and Canada.
“We remained seriously concerned over recent developments
which had increased tensions in the South China Sea and
reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability,
maritime security as well as freedom of navigation,” the forum
said in its final statement.
All parties involved should “exercise restraint” and
“settle disputes through peaceful means, without resorting to
the threat or use of force,” the ministers said in the
statement. The Forum also called for an early conclusion to the
code of conduct talks.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea under
a map first published in 1947, a territory which extends
hundreds of miles south from Hainan Island and takes in the
Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam, and the Spratly
Islands, some of which are claimed by the Philippines.
Deadly anti-Chinese riots broke out in Vietnam in May after
China placed an oil rig off islands claimed by the country. The
Philippines has tried to haul China before an UN tribunal as
Chinese ships increasingly operate off its coast. China has
refused to recognize the UN arbitration case.
“For the Chinese, the issue is decided and clear, they
have sovereignty over most of South China Sea,” said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies in Singapore. “They just need to get
everyone else to sign off on it.” Barring acquiescence from
the rest of Asean, “there will be a standoff,” he said.
The forum also provided a venue for the first meeting
between the foreign ministers of Japan and China since Japanese
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012.
Relations between the two countries have been strained by their
own territorial spat in the East China Sea and lingering
resentment over Japan’s militarism before and during World War
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida had sought the
talks to lay the groundwork for a possible first summit between
Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, when Beijing hosts the
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing in
Barriers to Relations
Wang in a statement called on Japan to remove “barriers”
to improving bilateral relations.
North Korea’s nuclear program was also an issue of
discussion, with Kerry meeting his Japanese and South Korean
counterparts today for talks that touched on how to contain
North Korea’s weapons program.
“As we meet here at the second trilateral meeting, the
situation on the Korean Peninsula is very uncertain and unstable
because of the growing threats from North Korea,” Korean
Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said, including what he called the
continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles. “It’s the
right time for us to map out our joint strategy.”
To contact the reporters on this story:
David Tweed in Hong Kong at
Kyaw Thu in Bangkok at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Rosalind Mathieson at
China Rejects U.S. Proposal to Ease South China Sea Tensions