News / Asia

US Says China, Not Washington, Responsible for South China Sea Tensions

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, foreground third left, poses for a group picture with foreign ministers before commencing the 4th East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, foreground third left, poses for a group picture with foreign ministers before commencing the 4th East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.
Victor Beattie

The United States says it is trying to lower tensions in the South China Sea and accused China of "fomenting instability" by its "aggressive actions." Washington’s comments came amid Chinese criticism of a U.S. plan for a voluntary freeze on provocative actions in Beijing's maritime disputes with Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Monday said a final statement by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Myanmar, also known as Burma, was sufficient in addressing regional territorial disputes. That statement underscored the importance of “maintaining peace and stability in accordance with universally-recognized principles of international law,” and called for “the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties” and “the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.”

Harf said Secretary of State John Kerry, who attended the ASEAN Regional Forum and suggested the voluntary freeze on provocations, said the United States made the points that needed to be made:

“And, he said, you know, we weren’t seeking to pass something per se - trying to put something on the table that people could embrace.  So, you know, he also said that a number of countries have decided that’s what they’re going to do.  It’s a voluntary process.  But, he also said he thinks there’s a way to achieve some progress with respect to the South China Sea based on conversations they had at ASEAN.  It’s an ongoing conversation, but I think judging from his comments, he seems like we had made some progress,” said Harf.

A senior Obama Administration official Saturday said the ASEAN statement is explicit in emphasizing the need for self-restraint, calling it “a significant shift” in the way ASEAN members are approaching their diplomacy with China. He said they are increasingly concerned about China’s “escalatory pattern of behavior.”

On Monday, a commentary by Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency said Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who also attended the meeting, rebuffed the freeze proposal as potentially counterproductive.  Xinhua said Washington’s proposal only stokes the flames by emboldening countries like the Philippines and Vietnam to take a hardline stance against China. It also urged Washington not to make the South China Sea the latest place of "chaos" as a result of U.S. intervention, and referenced Iraq, Syria and Libya as previous examples. In response, Harf pointed out that the Chinese were the ones taking “aggressive” actions, not the U.S.

“We’re not the ones that are fomenting instability there (South China Sea). It’s the aggressive actions the Chinese have taken that are doing so. Everything we are doing is designed to lower tension, to get people to resolve their differences diplomatically, and not through coercive or destabilizing measures, like we’ve seen Chinese take increasingly over the past several months,” said Harf.

The United States has accused China of asserting itself militarily in territorial disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the South China Sea, and in a dispute with Japan over competing claims to a group of uninhabited islands northeast of Taiwan.

A U.S. official traveling with Kerry said the United States will be monitoring the actual situation around the rocks, reefs and shoals of the South China Sea.

Pavin Chachavalpangpun, an associate professor at Japan’s Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies, says the reality is that nothing has changed and China continues to pursue what he calls its “aggressive foreign policy” in the South China Sea.  He said China’s actions represent America’s declining influence in that part of the world.

“What I’m trying to say is that, even though the US has come out firmly in regard to resolving South China Sea [disputes], we’ve seen ASEAN, in recent years, sliding into the warm, embracing arms of China to the point that, even as a regional organization, [it] has been reluctant to deal with this issue perhaps because of the interest between each individual ASEAN country with China in terms of its own political interest to the point that this interest has eclipsed regional interests,” said Pavin.

He said that given the Chinese leadership’s commitment to exert its national interests, he sees little hope of reducing tensions, which could erupt into armed conflict. Pavin added that perhaps the only way to check China’s policy is to take the dispute to an international organization such as the United Nations.

University of New South Wales professor emeritus Carl Thayer says the U.S. voluntary freeze proposal did not get consensus within ASEAN before it was publicly unveiled.  However, he describes China’s stated goal of 2015 being the year of China/ASEAN maritime cooperation is, in his words, turning black into white.

“It’s just totally misrepresenting itself that there is no blame to be accorded to its (China’s) activities. All the provocations are coming from outsiders or from ill-intentioned countries inside ASEAN that are buoyed by US support and it’s just the opposite,” said Thayer.

Thayer said China’s recent completion of geologic measurements involving a deep-sea oil rig off the Paracel Islands claimed by Vietnam is a current source of debate in Hanoi about whether it’s time to accommodate China diplomatically. 

Meanwhile, he said maritime disputes between China and the Philippines remain a tense stalemate, where China has frustrated Philippine efforts to resupply its forces on Second Thomas Shoal, part of the disputed Spratly Islands. 

And, he said, there is no halt to China’s reclamation efforts on other disputed islands in the South China Sea.

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