China Rejects U.S. Proposal to Ease South China Sea Tensions

China rebuffed a U.S. proposal for countries to refrain from “provocative” acts in the South China Sea as growing tensions over disputed territorial claims dominated a meeting of regional foreign ministers.

“It’s no understatement that what happens here matters not just to this region and to the U.S. but it matters to everybody in the world,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday at the first day of the Asean Regional Forum in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. “That’s why we’re encouraging claimant states to consider voluntarily agreeing to refrain from taking certain actions” that could escalate disputes, he said.

Despite China’s clashes with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that talk of rising tensions was exaggerated and questioned the motives of those calling for limiting activities in the region.

“We do not agree with such a practice, and we call for vigilance in the motives behind them,” Wang said yesterday. “Any proposal to come up with an alternative would only disrupt discussion of the code of conduct.”

Confrontations between China and some of its Southeast Asian neighbors have flared in the year since China agreed to talks on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. As negotiations stalled, China continued to assert its claims with ships, an oil rig and by building structures on rocks in waters thought to be rich in oil and gas, fueling confrontations with the Philippines and Vietnam.

Sea Disputes

The Obama administration has been trying to shift its foreign policy focus to Asia, where it is treaty bound to protect allies such as the Philippines and Japan, which has its own simmering territorial spat with China. The U.S. effort to mediate in the sea disputes has been criticized by China, and tensions between Wang and Kerry were apparent in Myanmar.

Wang began his press briefing with Kerry by scolding the secretary of state for keeping him waiting.

“We have been here at 4:30 p.m., waiting for you for more than half an hour,” Wang said in Chinese through an interpreter, prompting an apology from Kerry.

Kerry and Wang were participating in the Asean Regional Forum, a gathering of ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus foreign ministers from other countries including the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, South and North Korea, Australia and Canada.

‘Seriously Concerned’

“We remained seriously concerned over recent developments which had increased tensions in the South China Sea and reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, maritime security as well as freedom of navigation,” the forum said in its final statement.

All parties involved should “exercise restraint” and “settle disputes through peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force,” the ministers said in the statement. The Forum also called for an early conclusion to the code of conduct talks.

China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea under a map first published in 1947, a territory which extends hundreds of miles south from Hainan Island and takes in the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam, and the Spratly Islands, some of which are claimed by the Philippines.

Deadly anti-Chinese riots broke out in Vietnam in May after China placed an oil rig off islands claimed by the country. The Philippines has tried to haul China before an UN tribunal as Chinese ships increasingly operate off its coast. China has refused to recognize the UN arbitration case.

Decided, Clear

“For the Chinese, the issue is decided and clear, they have sovereignty over most of South China Sea,” said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They just need to get everyone else to sign off on it.” Barring acquiescence from the rest of Asean, “there will be a standoff,” he said.

The forum also provided a venue for the first meeting between the foreign ministers of Japan and China since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012. Relations between the two countries have been strained by their own territorial spat in the East China Sea and lingering resentment over Japan’s militarism before and during World War II.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida had sought the talks to lay the groundwork for a possible first summit between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, when Beijing hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing in November.

Barriers to Relations

Wang in a statement called on Japan to remove “barriers” to improving bilateral relations.

North Korea’s nuclear program was also an issue of discussion, with Kerry meeting his Japanese and South Korean counterparts today for talks that touched on how to contain North Korea’s weapons program.

“As we meet here at the second trilateral meeting, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is very uncertain and unstable because of the growing threats from North Korea,” Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said, including what he called the continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles. “It’s the right time for us to map out our joint strategy.”

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