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China Thwarts U.S. Bid to Reduce South China Sea Tensions

By Kyaw Thu and Sangwon Yoon
August 10, 2014 10:48 PM EDT
A handout photograph shows a Chinese trawler sailing near a U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ship in the South China Sea.
Source: U.S. Navy via Bloomberg News
A handout photograph shows a Chinese trawler sailing near a U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ship in the South China Sea.

China’s rejection of U.S. and Philippine proposals to regulate countries’ behavior in the South China Sea signaled tensions are likely to persist in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

At a regional security meeting this weekend, China rebuffed a U.S. proposal for nations involved in disputes to voluntarily avoid actions that could be provocative. The proposal, and a similar measure by the Philippines at the Asean Regional Forum in Myanmar, were aimed at breathing life into stalled talks on drafting a code of conduct.

“They are not going anywhere because the Chinese don’t see any value in it,” said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “Their argument is increasingly there is no reason to do this stuff. In their mind it’s a settled issue.”

With its economic and military clout growing, China has been more aggressively asserting its claims to about 90 percent of the South China Sea, including territory claimed by Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. The push is also fueling tensions with the U.S. as the Obama administration seeks so assert its own influence in the region.

“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 on Aug. 9 on the first day of the 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.

Nine-Dash Line

China’s claims are based on its nine-dash line map first published in 1947, a territory that 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.

China agreed to talks on a code of conduct a year ago at a similar meeting of Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and since then little progress has been made. Asean works by consensus, something that has been lacking on the South China Sea issue.

Given the importance of Sino-Asean trade, non-claimant states may be reluctant to anger the world’s second-biggest economy. Asean expects bilateral trade with China to reach $500 billion by 2015 and $1 trillion by 2020.

Talks Stalled

“We all share the hope that Asean and China will accelerate negotiations on a meaningful code of conduct, we think the urgency of developments means that it is not enough simply to wait for that solution to arrive,” Kerry said yesterday. “Obvious dangers arise during waiting time. The claimants need to take steps now to lower the temperature.”

With the talks stalled, China has been ramping up its forays into the South China Sea. In Vietnam, anti-Chinese riots exploded in May after China placed an oil rig in waters off its coast. China has been carrying out construction on some islands and shoals claimed by the Philippines and plans to erect five lighthouses there.

Kerry said that he was pleased by language in the final communique of the meeting, calling on countries to show restraint and for disputes to be resolved through peaceful means. He said he was confident that the Myanmar meeting would lead to progress. China has repeatedly called on the U.S. to stay out of the South China Sea issue.

Kerry Scolded

“U.S. involvement is not helping because it pushes China into a corner and forces it to respond in a way to assert its claims more strongly,” said Terence Lee, an assistant professor of political science at National University of Singapore.

Tensions between the two countries were on public display in Myanmar.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi began his Aug. 9 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.

To contact the reporters on this story: Kyaw Thu in Bangkok at kthu1@bloomberg.net; Sangwon Yoon in Naypyitaw at syoon32@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Davis at abdavis@bloomberg.net; Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net Fergal O’Brien

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