Speaking in Hawaii after a week-long trip to Asia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said resolving competing territorial claims in the South China Sea is about respecting international law, not rival claimants trying to intimidate each other.
Secretary Kerry said disputed mineral and fishing rights in the South China Sea underlie more fundamental legal questions of sovereignty and rights of free passage.
"You know they're really about more than claims to islands and reefs and rocks and the economic interests that flow from them. They're about whether might makes right or whether global rules and norms and rule of law and international law will prevail," said Kerry.
The South China Sea is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, where China's coast guard already has clashed with vessels from both Vietnam and the Philippines. Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have competing claims in the South China Sea, where Kerry says a constructive US-China relationship will contribute to stability.
"President Obama has made it clear that the United States welcomes the rise of a peaceful, prosperous and stable China -- one that plays a responsible role in Asia and the world, and supports rules and norms on economic and security issues,” said Kerry.
Kerry added that Washington wants to avoid "the trap of strategic rivalry" with China. But China over the weekend helped undercut U.S. efforts to freeze provocative actions in the South China Sea, further eroding Washington's so-called pivot of diplomatic and military resources, said American Enterprise Institute analyst Michael Auslin.
"Look at the way that the waterscape in Asia has changed. Look at China's increasing coercion bordering on aggression right now. You're not doing anything about that. And yet at every turn, at every occasion you remind us about how important the pivot is to you. I just think people don't know what to make of it," said Auslin.
With the Philippines and Vietnam looking to Washington for help, American University professor Hillary Mann Leverett said China is pushing U.S. allies to the point where Beijing believes Washington will show the weakness of its Asia policy by failing to come to their aid.
"It's a really focused, determined strategy based on assumptions that the United States is not really going to put its military wherewithal into the South China Sea to fight China over issues that it doesn't really care about," said Leverett.
Such a perception, she said, hurts Washington at a time when Beijing and Moscow see a greater common cause.
"The concern about U.S. policy has been pushing Russia and China together now for a few years, particularly since the start of the Arab Awakening, over Libya, over Syria. We've been seeing them coming together more and more, especially on hydrocarbon issues,” continued Leverett.
Kerry said the Obama administration is working to raise trade and investment standards in Asia because national interests are advanced not just by troops or by diplomats, but by entrepreneurs and good corporate citizens as well.