Maritime Dispute Missing From Outcomes After U.S.-China Talks

  • Two sides talk past each other over South China Sea tensions
  • Xi says common interests outnumber differences with U.S.

The 32-page outcome document from two days of talks between U.S. and Chinese leaders didn’t mention tension over Beijing’s actions in the disputed South China Sea, reflecting how far apart the countries remain over the issue.

The closest the two sides got after the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing was the 30th of 120 points, where they reaffirmed their “commitment to uphold the principle of peaceful resolution of disputes” in the Asia-Pacific region.

The annual dialogue is billed as a chance for the world’s two biggest economies to shore up ties and work on areas of disagreement, in what the U.S. cites as the most important bilateral relationship there is. The final document from the diplomacy and strategy portion of the talks signaled that the South China Sea remains an area they don’t see eye-to-eye on.

“The key is to always bear in mind that our common interests outnumber our differences,” President Xi Jinping said in a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry as the dialogue concluded on Tuesday. “So we need to respect each other’s core interests and major concerns and on that basis, try to work together to seek solutions to the differences.”

China contests more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in seaborne trade passes every year, its claims overlapping those from countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. It has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres of land in the past few years, and built some military infrastructure, including airstrips.

Points of Agreement

Over the course of the June 6-7 talks, the countries affirmed their desire for North Korea to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and to work together to seek reconciliation in Afghanistan. They pledged to implement the Paris climate-change agreement by the end of the year and to work toward an agreement to control unregulated commercial fishing in the Arctic Ocean.

There was agreement also enhance communication on military issues, Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang said Tuesday in a briefing, without giving specifics. The countries have developed a code for unplanned encounters at sea that covers the military but does not extend to the coast guard, and it’s non-navy boats that China is increasingly using to assert its South China Sea claims, patrolling the area and chasing away other vessels.

On the South China Sea, possibly the single-biggest source of tension now, the countries appeared to talk past each other.

For a graphic on China’s military expansion in Asia, click here

China has already said it won’t heed a ruling from a United Nations tribunal, expected within weeks, on a dispute over the waterway with the Philippines. Some security analysts have said China could soon build on the Scarborough Shoal, which it wrested from the Philippines in 2012, a move the U.S. has warned it would “take action” over.

The friction was on display during Kerry’s talks with State Councilor Yang Jiechi. In the meeting, Kerry reiterated that the U.S. doesn’t take a position on sovereignty claims in the region. Seconds later, Yang said “China hopes the U.S. will honor its promise of not taking a position on the territorial disputes.” A later story by the official Xinhua News Agency made no mention of Kerry’s remarks.

The atmosphere echoed the dynamic last weekend at the Shangri-La security dialogue in Singapore, where U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said China risks erecting a “Great Wall of self-isolation” in Asia over its actions in the South China Sea.

Maritime Law

Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo used a subsequent speech in Singapore to highlight his military’s cooperation in the western Pacific, while implicitly questioning the U.S. tactic of sailing ships near reefs that China claims in what the Pentagon calls freedom of navigation operations.

“Our position is very clear with respect to maritime law,” Kerry said. “We want the traditional historic freedom of navigation and overflight to be respected; China has said it will be respected.”

At the same time, Kerry sought to highlight how stronger ties with China allowed the two sides to move past areas of dispute.

“We do have some differences but what we did over the last two days was professionally, respectfully, I think thoughtfully articulate those differences and agreed on ways in which we can try to find progress,” Kerry said.