Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. is pushing China to negotiate quickly with Southeast Asian nations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, an area that’s a “major, major, major highway of commerce.”
China agreed during an Association of Southeast Asian Nations-hosted forum in Brunei late last month to meet with the 10-member group in September to develop rules to avoid conflict in the waters. Nguyen Tan Dung, prime minister of Asean member Vietnam, warned in May that miscalculations over territorial disputes could disrupt commerce, with two-thirds of all maritime trade moving through the area.
“We’re doing everything to encourage that to be done, but it has to be done,” Biden said in a Bloomberg Television interview on July 27, as he wrapped up a six-day trip to India and Singapore. “It’s in everyone’s interest, including China’s, to have it happen that way, through negotiating a settlement.”
Biden is the third senior Obama administration official to visit Asia -- following Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry -- since May, as the U.S. seeks to assure its allies it is committed to a pledge to build its military and economic presence in the region. The U.S. has close ties with the Philippines, which has its own maritime dispute with China, a tussle that has also prompted the Asean member to bolster its relations with Japan.
China’s neighbors reject its map of the South China Sea, first published in the 1940s, as a basis for joint exploration of oil and gas. Spats involving fishing and exploration boats have raised tensions as countries vie for resources.
China National Offshore Oil Corp. estimates the South China Sea may hold about five times more undiscovered natural gas than the country’s current proved reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
China, the world’s second-biggest economy, rejects U.S. involvement in South China Sea matters. While it has said it wants a code of conduct in the waters, it also seeks to resolve territorial disputes on a bilateral basis. It views the other countries as aggressors, accusing them of breaching a previous agreement on operating in the area.
Biden didn’t offer specifics on how the U.S. would prod China for a quick resolution of a code of conduct.
“It is in China’s interest to drag out as long as possible any legally-binding document” that could be seen to diminish its claims on the South China Sea, said Terence Lee, an assistant professor of political science at National University of Singapore. “It’s very unlikely the code of conduct will be agreed on this year.”
China has cut the cables of survey ships working for Vietnam and its dispute with the Philippines has led to several standoffs between Chinese and Philippine vessels. China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over more than 100 islets, atolls and reefs that form the Paracel and Spratly Islands, and jurisdiction over the seabed and subsoil.
Further north, Japan’s purchase last year of islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China led to Chinese protests and roiled trade ties between Asia’s two biggest economies.
“What we want to see is that there’s no use of threat, intimidation or force,” Biden said in Singapore. “The rules of the road and international rules relating to international waters, sea lanes” need to be be upheld, to keep them open and free, he said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 27 agreed with the Philippines to boost maritime cooperation and seek “responsible action” on territorial disputes. Abe also called on China for talks “as soon as possible” to improve ties. During his visit to the Philippines he said Japan would provide a yen loan to equip the Philippine Coast Guard with 10 new patrol vessels.
Territorial spats and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have escalated regional tensions, and China views the increased U.S. presence in Asia as a bid to contain it. Abe, in turn, has backed Japan’s first boost in military spending in 11 years, and his Defense Ministry is urging a buildup of marine forces.
“There’s sort of a storyline that either there’s a new Cold War with China or there’s a new G2 -- neither is true,” Biden said. “We are prepared and anxious to compete with China in the economic forum. We also believe there are many areas of cooperation, for example on the environment.”
Biden met Abe in Singapore on July 26, the same day Japan’s defense ministry said it should bolster its fledgling marine force and consider developing a first-strike capability as it seeks to respond to “high-handed” actions by China and the threat of North Korean missiles. Abe advocates the country’s first revision of its pacifist constitution, a U.S.-drafted document imposed on Japan after World War II.
“I’ve met with the Japanese leadership -- I’ve not heard Abe say, or anyone else say, that they are going to abandon the conditions that exist within their constitution,” Biden said. “It’s in no one’s interest to see increased militarization of any country in the region.”
A year after the Pentagon said it would focus more on Asia after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Defense Department faces as much as $500 billion in cuts over the next nine years. The U.S. military rebalance will mean that 60 percent of the Navy’s fleet will be based in the Pacific by 2020, from about 50 percent.
“One of the reasons the region has been able to succeed so well economically for long is the stability and security the United States’s presence in the region has provided,” Biden said. “We’re a Pacific power. We’re not going anywhere.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at firstname.lastname@example.org