WASHINGTON will not tolerate any navigation restrictions in the South China Sea, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday at a regional security meeting dominated by tensions over Beijing’s island building.
“Let me be clear: The United States will not accept restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight, or other lawful uses of the sea. These are intrinsic rights that we all share,” he said according to a transcript of his remarks.
Kerry made his comments at a security meeting hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Kuala Lumpur.
China has sparked alarm by expanding tiny reefs and constructing military posts, steps viewed by some of its neighbors as violating a regional pledge against provocative actions in the area.
The long simmering dispute has flared at the Malaysia meet, attended by members of the 10-nation regional grouping as well as more than a dozen others including China, Japan, South Korea and the US.
The US and Southeast Asian nations have called for Beijing to halt both reclamation in the South China Sea and construction on reefs, something Beijing has staunchly resisted.
“I have urged all claimants to make a joint commitment to halt further land reclamation and construction of new facilities or militarization on disputed features,” Kerry told delegates, arguing such a step would “lower tensions”.
ASEAN members were at loggerheads Thursday over how hard to press China on its contentious efforts to assert control over the South China Sea, with the issue threatening to fray regional unity.
Diplomatic sources said the Philippines and Vietnam in particular were pushing for stronger language on Chinese land reclamation, which could help shore up Beijing’s disputed territorial claims.
But there was pushback from traditional China allies among the ASEAN.
“China’s friends are taking a hard stance,” said one diplomat familiar with the drafting.
The diplomat did not specify which countries were taking a hard line, but Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar traditionally ally with China within ASEAN.
The tug-of-war raises the specter of a 2012 ASEAN meeting hosted by Cambodia, when the bloc was unable for the first time in its four-decade history to issue a joint statement.
Cambodia was accused of precipitating the debacle by refusing to allow criticism of China over its maritime territorial assertions.
“China has already figured out how ASEAN works on the South China Sea, it knows how to divide us. Look at what happened in Cambodia,” one diplomat at the talks in Kuala Lumpur said.
Envoys from 27 nations -- including the United States and China -- were in Kuala Lumpur for the final day of regional security talks dominated by long-running disputes over the strategic sea.
Beijing claims control over nearly the entire South China Sea, a key shipping route thought to hold rich oil and gas reserves.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei -- all ASEAN members -- also have various claims, as does Taiwan, many of which overlap.
Each year the regional bloc, which prides itself on its history of consensus diplomacy, releases a joint communique after the annual meeting of its foreign ministers, which took place Tuesday.
Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters Thursday morning that the joint statement was supposed to have been completed the previous day.
“It has not been finalized as of now. There are difficulties,” he said.
“The paragraphs relating to the South China Sea are causing some problems,” he added.
A draft of the communique obtained by Agence France-Presse makes no mention of halting reclamation.
Instead it warns that recent developments in the sea “have the very potential of undermining peace, security and stability”.
It adds: “There is an imperative need to urgently address the erosion of trust and corrosion of confidence amongst parties on these matters”.
Delegates said they still hoped to get a final joint statement by the end of the day.
The United States and Southeast Asian nations have called for a halt to further land-reclamation and construction.
China had so far refused, but on Wednesday Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said land reclamation had “already stopped”.
However some delegates in Kuala Lumpur have played down those claims.
One diplomat told reporters: “They’re not saying they’re stopping construction, nor are they saying they’ll stop future reclamation.”
The Philippines said it would only be satisfied once Beijing halts construction in the disputed sea.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said Thursday that the East Asia Summit should play a major role in crafting the region’s security architecture and it must address all major issues that prevent the creation of a region of peace and cooperation.
Del Rosario made the call during high-level meetings of the ASEAN and East Asia summit in Kuala Lumpur, and emphasized that recent provocative actions by China constituted an infringement on the rights of the Philippines and other countries under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and a violation of the 2002 ASEAN China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
The Palace on Thursday said that China’s claims that it has already stopped construction on disputed areas in the South China Sea still needed to be verified.
“Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario had earlier said there must be a halt to reclamation, halt to construction and halt to activities that tend to escalate tensions in the region,” said Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr.
Coloma also said there were reports that there is a second phase of construction, which he said must also be stopped.
He could not verify, however, reports that Japan will provide the Philippines with surveillance planes.
“This must be verified first from the Department of National Defense,” he said.
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