US, China butt heads over East Sea disputes

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International observers condemn China's unsubstantiated territorial claims to the East Sea and push ASEAN to step up as a regional player

Vietnamese soldiers patrol an island in Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago, which belongs to Vietnam

On Wednesday (June 22), China urged the US to stay out of the East Sea dispute.

The comments came a day after American politicians and international policy analysts decried China's recent aggression in the East Sea during a two-day conference in Washington.

Many speakers called on the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to be more active in helping to resolve international territorial disputes.

In recent weeks, Chinese ships have repeatedly hassled Vietnamese marine survey ships operating well inside the nation's Exclusive Economic Zone.

In advance of a conference in Hawaii this weekend, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai told a small group of foreign reporters that "it [would be] better for the United States to leave the dispute to be sorted out between claimant states."

China has no intention of entering into a military conflict with another country, including Vietnam, Reuters cited Tiankai as saying on Wednesday.

On Monday and Tuesday, the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held a two-day conference on maritime security in the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea.

Senator John McCain said he was "increasingly concerned" that the East Sea is becoming a flashpoint of conflict and that China's claims "have no basis in international law."

China's claim has been outlined in official maps that depict a large U-shaped extending into the East Sea from its southern terrestrial border. The line encompasses most of the sea's 1.7 million square kilometers area and includes Vietnam's Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelagos.

McCain called for more active participation from ASEAN in resolving East Sea disputes.

"This situation requires a little straight talk," he said. "One of the main forces exacerbating tensions in the South China Sea, and making a peaceful resolution of these disputes harder to achieve, is the aggressive behavior of China and the unsubstantiated territorial claims that it seeks to advance."

"What troubles me, and I imagine many of you, are the expansive claims that China makes in the South China Sea; the rationale offered for these claims, which has no basis in international law; and the increasingly assertive actions that China is taking to enforce its self-described rights, including in waters within 200 miles off the coast of ASEAN countries, as was the case recently in separate incidents involving Vietnam and the Philippines."

McCain laid out a six-point plan pertaining to the East Sea dispute. He also called for the US to assist ASEAN in solving disputes "as a means of fostering greater ASEAN unity vis-à-vis China."

"China seeks to exploit the divisions among ASEAN members to play them off each other to press its own agenda," he said. "Resolving the competing maritime claims among ASEAN states, as Malaysia and Brunei have recently done, would enable our partners to establish a more united front."

He also said the US needs to help ASEAN build up its maritime defense and detection capabilities to develop and deploy basic systems such as early warning radar and coastal security vessels.

"Remedying this lack of capacity, and enhancing our joint exercises would give a more common operational picture in South China Sea and a better ability to respond to threats," he said.

Stein Tønnesson of the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Norway, who chaired a session on the "effectiveness of current maritime security frameworks and mechanisms in the South China Sea," said the conference included some very frank discussions that would help the CSIS formulate proposals for the US government.

"There was general agreement among most participants that ASEAN needs to be more active , not the least in moving towards the adoption of a legally binding code of conduct agreement," he told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.

"The idea was mentioned that if it is impossible to get China to negotiate seriously, the ASEAN countries might develop a treaty themselves and invite China to join.

"Very strong criticism was heard at the conference of China's recent behavior vis-à-vis the Philippines and Vietnam."

Peter Dutton of the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute also said that ASEAN should adopt an expanded role in resolving regional disputes.

"The Indonesian Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, spoke about the important role that Indonesia and ASEAN can play in bringing all parties together to discuss their concerns and to seek opportunities for progress toward resolutions or at least toward achieving confidence-building measures," he said.

He also called on littoral countries in the East Sea to resolve disputes based on the international law of the sea.

"Currently, in the words of a Chinese scholar in attendance at the conference, China's claims are based on "˜UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] plus.' In other words, China wants to assert more authority than the UNCLOS allows and is doing so by claiming jurisdiction in reference to its view of history and the U-shaped line, rather than in reference to geographical features," he said.

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