US Secretary of State John Kerry encouraged Southeast Asian leaders on Wednesday in their efforts to resolve maritime disputes with China based on international legal principles, rather than by making individual deals as China would prefer.
Mr. Kerry arrived in Brunei to substitute for President Obama at the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, and the broader East Asia Summit meeting of 18 countries on Thursday. Mr. Obama canceled his appearances because of the government shutdown in Washington.
“A finalised code of conduct, in which all abide by a common set of rules and standards, is something that will benefit the entire Asia-Pacific community of nations — and beyond,” Mr. Kerry told the leaders.
Mr. Kerry was referring to the recent stepped-up efforts by the Asean countries to persuade a resistant China to agree to a legally binding code of conduct that would govern the peaceful resolution of disputes.
In particular, Mr. Kerry was throwing American support behind the Philippines, a treaty ally of Washington, in a legal case it brought this year against China over the Scarborough Shoal, a reef about 120 miles off the Philippine coast that China claims.
China has excoriated the Philippines for initiating the arbitration case, which is now before a panel under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China has refused to recognise the challenge, and in a show of anger, some senior Chinese officials have declined to meet their Filipino counterparts and China has refused to invite the Philippines to certain meetings.
“The United States has been very happy to see Asean’s efforts to push forward on the negotiations toward a code of conduct,” Mr. Kerry said.
In a direct criticism of China, a senior State Department official told reporters travelling with Mr. Kerry that the “Chinese consistently indicate their view that ‘difficult issues’ that might fall outside the comfort zone of any member need not be discussed” at Asean meetings.
“That is not a view that is held by the United States, or, I believe, many if not most of the East Asia Summit member states,” the official said. China has serious territorial and maritime disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The shipping lanes in the South China Sea are estimated to carry more than half the world’s trade, and substantial deposits of oil and gas lie in the seabed.
On the sidelines of the Asean meeting, Mr. Kerry met for 75 minutes with the Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang, and discussed Syria, North Korea economic issues and the South China Sea, a State Department official said.
At the start of the session, Mr. Li referred to China as still a developing country, something Chinese officials do frequently. Mr. Kerry suggested that the description was not quite accurate. “We think you are a little more developed than you may want to say,” Mr. Kerry said.
Echoing Mr. Kerry’s theme, the president of the Philippines, Benigno S. Aquino III, made an impassioned argument to the Asean leaders that the rule of law should decide the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
“Our development as a region cannot be realised in an international environment where the rule of law does not exist,” Mr. Aquino said. “The challenge that confronts one is a challenge that confronts all.”
China claims the waters and the islands of the South China Sea within the so-called nine-dash line, a boundary that was drawn by China in the 1940s but is not recognised by any other country. The line covers 80 percent of the South China Sea.
To counter China, Mr. Aquino said the Philippines had adopted a two-track approach that was “both peaceful and rules-based.”
First, he said, the Philippines was advocating the expeditious adoption of a code of conduct. Second, the Philippines would continue to pursue the arbitration. “Both tracks are legally binding and both are anchored in international law,” Mr. Aquino said.
Last month, under pressure from Asean countries, China called a meeting in the city of Suzhou to begin discussions on the code of conduct.
The Chinese agreed at the meeting to consultations on the code of conduct, but stopped short of agreeing to negotiations. A statement by the Foreign Ministry after the Suzhou meeting said that the code should be developed “gradually.”
China has criticized the United States for unreasonable involvement in the South China Sea, saying the United States is not a party to the disputes. Last month, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said the intrusion of countries outside the region complicated the issue.Source: New York Times – Kerry, in Asia, Urges Focus on Law in China Disputes
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