Obama Says Bold Steps Needed to Cut South China Sea Tension

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  • U.S. backs process of international law to resolve spats
  • Philippines says others may join its case against China

Bold steps need to be taken to lower tensions in the South China Sea, U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday in Manila, affirming his support for the Philippines’ effort to settle its territorial dispute with China through international arbitration.

QuickTake Territorial Disputes

"We’re not claimants ourselves but we fully support a process in which through international laws and international norms these issues are resolved,” Obama said after meeting Philippine President Benigno Aquino on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. “We look forward to working with all parties to move disputes through these channels."

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last month ruled it has jurisdiction to hear the case against China’s bid to assert its claims to the South China Sea, even though China has refused to take part in the proceedings. China’s claim to more than 80 percent of the waterway also clashes with those made by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Aquino said the Philippines had been discussing with some of the other claimants whether they’d join the arbitration effort. Vietnam’s foreign ministry said this month that it would closely watch the Philippine case and was considering its next steps.

“China is increasingly isolated on this issue, as states such as Malaysia and Indonesia that once were rather circumspect have become worried about China,” said James Kraska, research director at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College. “The U.S. has become progressively more supportive of the arbitration.”

Building Airstrips

Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi this month questioned the motives of a “superpower” building airstrips on islands thousands of miles from its mainland, without identifying the country. Indonesia’s coordinating minister for legal, politics and security affairs, Luhut Panjaitan, said this month his country considers that China’s nine-dash claim lacks a legal basis.

China’s President Xi Jinping, also speaking in Manila, urged APEC leaders to “foster an environment of peace” in the region through dialogue and cooperation. He didn’t mention the South China Sea in his remarks.

1940s Map

China has previously said it would never accept a South China Sea solution imposed by a third party and would only enter two-way negotiations. Its territorial claims are based on a line drawn on a 1947 map for which it gives no precise coordinates. The country also asserts an historical link to the islands.

On Wednesday, Obama called on China to stop its land reclamation activities in the area. China has alarmed its neighbors over the past year with a dredging program that has dumped millions of tonnes of sand and coral onto seven features in the Spratly Islands, creating at least 2,900 acres of land -- more than three times the size of New York’s Central Park -- on the features.

The U.S. last month sailed a warship close to a reef reclaimed by China in what the Obama administration called a freedom-of-navigation operation. Two U.S. B-52 bombers were challenged by Chinese air controllers on a recent flight, though the planes did not fly within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands.

Obama on Tuesday toured the Gregorio del Pilar in Manila, a Philippine navy vessel that confronted two Chinese surveillance ships in 2012 near a disputed shoal in the Spratly chain. The vessel is a symbol of U.S. military support for the Philippines as it got its start in the U.S. Coast Guard before it was decommissioned in 2011 and transferred to the Southeast Asian nation.

“The freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea must be upheld,” Obama said. “Together we support a rule-based order in the region, which is critical to regional security and the global economy.”