July 23, 2010
By Daniel Ten Kate and Nicole Gaouette, Bloomberg News
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said resolving territorial disputes in waters off China’s coast is “a leading diplomatic priority” as the U.S. strengthens Asian defense ties in the face of a Chinese naval buildup.
Ending disagreements in the South China Sea “is pivotal to regional stability,” Clinton told the 27-member Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi today, according to a transcript provided by the State Department. She is set to meet later today with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
Clinton yesterday discussed military cooperation with Vietnam and Defense Secretary Robert Gates restored ties with special forces in Indonesia. The two countries border the South China Sea, which contains sea corridors vital to world trade, and where U.S. officials say China has become more assertive.
China considers the entire South China Sea as its own, dismissing rival claims, and is building a blue-water fleet to project power beyond its own borders. China told some international oil and gas companies to halt exploration in offshore areas that Vietnam considers part of its territory, a U.S. official told Congress last year.
“The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion,” Clinton said. “We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.”
President Barack Obama invited leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to Washington in the autumn for a second summit with the bloc, Clinton said. Asean includes Myanmar, which Clinton criticized for locking up political prisoners and possibly violating United Nations resolutions concerning North Korea.
China formally disputed the claims of Vietnam and Malaysia to part of the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands when it submitted a map to the United Nations last year asserting ownership over most of the sea. Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also lay claim to all or part of the island chain, which may contain oil and gas reserves.
Asean foreign ministers are negotiating an agreement with China on a code of conduct in the sea to build on a 2002 accord that called for disputes to be resolved peacefully. Ministers hope the deal can be concluded by year’s end and be improved at a later date, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said yesterday.
Open shipping lanes in the sea are “really the lifeline of our commerce, of our transport for all of us,” Surin told reporters in Hanoi. China, Japan and South Korea “recognize that 85 to 90 percent of their energy source comes either from or through Southeast Asia,” he said.
Estimates of oil and gas reserves vary, with some Chinese studies suggesting the waters contain more oil than Iran and more natural gas than Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP Plc are among companies that have halted projects in the sea because of China’s objections, according to U.S. government agencies.
The U.S. plans to “facilitate initiatives and confidence-building measures” to bridge the gap between parties in the sea, which stretches from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan, Clinton said, without elaborating. China cut off military ties with the U.S. in January over arms sales to Taiwan.
Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said two days ago that the inability to speak directly with Chinese military leaders was a cause for concern.
China’s long-term military ambition is “not open, it’s not transparent,” he told U.S. troops in South Korea. “Where are they headed and why?”
China doesn’t see U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, as “normal,” General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said in Singapore last month.
“The development of China’s national defense capabilities is not aimed at challenging, threatening or invading any other country but at, first and foremost, maintaining its own security,” he said.
Chinese officials told U.S. counterparts in March they consider the sea a “core interest” on par with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, Kyodo News reported on July 3, citing unidentified officials.
China has criticized joint naval drills between the U.S. and South Korea aimed at deterring North Korea, which the two countries blame for sinking a South Korean warship in March in an attack that killed 46 people.