Wednesday, 6 August 2014
South-East Asia: Washington hopes ASEAN Regional Forum can lower tensions in the South China Sea
In a meeting with Southeast Asian nations this weekend, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will press for a voluntary freeze on actions aggravating territorial disputes in the South China Sea, in spite of Beijing's rejection of the idea.
A priority for Kerry at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) would be to lower tensions in the South China Sea while accelerating efforts by ASEAN and China to agree on a code of conduct. China and four members of the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have rival claims to the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion of maritime trade passes annually.
Speaking to Reuters on 4 August, Daniel Russel, the State Department's senior diplomat for the East Asia region, said "The regional economy is too important and too fragile for any country or any claimant to use the threat of military force or paramilitary force in retaliation, for intimidation, or as a coercive effort."
In a news briefing, he continued there was room for rival claimants "to take some voluntary steps, and to identify actions they find troubling if not provocative on the part of other claimants, and to offer, if everyone will agree, to renounce those kinds of actions." Such steps could include abiding by an existing agreement not to seize unoccupied land features, or more significantly, a moratorium in land reclamation efforts.
China, which will also participate in the ARF meeting, rejected the idea of a freeze, however, saying it could build what it wanted on its South China Sea islands. China claims 90% of the sea, which is believed to contain oil and gas deposits and has rich fishery resources.
Yi Xianliang, deputy head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Boundary and Ocean Affairs Departments, said that if the United States had such a proposal, he had not seen it and that in any case the South China Sea was an issue for countries directly involved.
The Philippines has also stated its intentions to propose a freeze at the ARF meeting, as well as the implementation of a code of conduct and arbitration to settle disputes. In July, Manila called for a meeting of the four ASEAN claimants - itself, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam - ahead of August’s ARF to hammer out a common stand in dealings with China.
China has been increasingly assertive in pressing its territorial claims and Washington fears misunderstandings could inadvertently lead to open conflict. China's recent withdrawal of an oil rig from waters also contested by Vietnam, reported in Menas Borders on 16/07/2014, had removed a serious irritant but China’s neighbours have been left with serious questions about China's long-term strategy.
For more information about China’s claim to the South China Sea please see our Border Focus: South China Sea briefing.