South China Sea: US, China spar, India backs freedom of navigation

china-navy_2300875bStability in the South China Sea – a region disputed by China and Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam – dominated discussions at a series of meetings held in Myanmar focused on the ASEAN and East Asia region. The meetings saw a prickly verbal exchange between US and China, with Beijing forcefully rejecting a US proposal for countries to refrain from “provocative” acts in the South China Sea

China-US Spat

In Naypitaw, US Secretary of State John Kerry worked hard to ease tensions between China and its neighbours on the issue of the South China Sea Islands. “It’s no understatement that what happens here matters not just to this region and to the US but it matters to everybody in the world,” Mr Kerry said at the Association of South-East Asian Nations Regional Forum (ASEAN) in Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar. “That’s why we’re encouraging claimant states to consider voluntarily agreeing to refrain from taking certain actions” that would escalate disputes.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicated that China has a right to uphold its sovereignty and accused the US of exaggerating the dispute. A prickly China sharply rejected the US’ proposal.  “Someone has been exaggerating or even playing up the so-called tensions in the South China Sea. We do not agree with such a practice and we call for vigilance in the motives behind them,” said Wang. “Any proposal to come up with an alternative would only disrupt discussion of the code of conduct.”

Kerry WangAddressing an ASEAN meeting, Kerry called for intensifying efforts to agree on a code of conduct for governing maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Kerry said that the US has a strong interest in maintaining the stability of the region, maintaining respect for international law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea – which has critical shipping lanes and is also believed to hold sizeable oil and gas reserves.

“The United States and ASEAN have a common responsibility to ensure the maritime safety of critical global sea lanes and ports,” Kerry told foreign ministers on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting, including those from claimant states such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

“We need to work together to manage tensions in the South China Sea peacefully, and also to manage them on the basis of international law,” he said.

Rising Tensions

Recent ASEAN meetings have been dominated by the issue of the South China Sea. With China adopting an assertive stance, and several countries making overlapping claims over the islands, tensions have mounted. The dispute has been exacerbated by China’s deployment of a deep oil-sea rig near the Paracel islands, claimed by both Hanoi and Beijing. China deployed the rig in early May, and though it removed the rig two months hence, the deployment resulted in straining China’s relations with Vietnam. This has raised questions about China’s long-term strategy in relation to its neighbors, with the US also echoing concerns.

Oil RigChina claims nearly the whole of South China Sea on historical grounds, which are disputed by both Vietnam and Philippines. Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have also made claims on the islands.

While the US has proposed a plan to halt provocative acts in the disputed region, China’s response has been cold since it prefers to discuss issues bilaterally. ASEAN members too said that they would not discuss the plan because of an agreement signed with China on ‘self-restraint’ in 2002.

Philippines also proposed a three-point initiative for the arbitration of disputes but China dismissed the proposal, claiming that the issue was being blown out of proportion.

India’s Stand

India’s stand on the matter  was clarified by Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj  who said that India supports freedom of navigation and access to resources as per the principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Swaraj added that India expected to see progress on the matter of implementation of “guidelines to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the adoption of a Code of Conduct on the basis of consensus”.

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