U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on China to end “problematic actions” in the South China Sea, where tensions have escalated as Beijing built artificial islands on occupied reefs.
Kerry told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur that the U.S. wants to see competing claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea “resolved peacefully,” according to a State Department official traveling with Kerry. He encouraged China and other claimants to “create space for diplomacy,” said the official, who asked not to be identified in line with departmental policy.
The meeting, which took place at a gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, occurred ahead of a September state visit to the U.S. by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Wang said China “is willing to see the U.S. play an active role” in Asia, though nations outside of the South China Sea region shouldn’t escalate tensions in the area.
Concerns over the sea disputes, which involve Asean members Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines, have become a regular topic at meetings of the 10-member Southeast Asian group, often overshadowing more immediate efforts to promote regional economic ties. The meeting comes days after China accused the U.S. of militarizing the South China Sea with patrol flights.
China claims sovereignty over about four-fifths of the sea, according to a so-called nine-dash line map it drew in the 1940s. It has continued to develop artificial islands on disputed reefs, upsetting nations with competing claims who say the construction threatens peace and freedom of navigation in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
In a commentary published by China’s state-run Xinhua news service Wednesday, U.S. proposals for China to halt land reclamation and construction on South China Sea reefs were called “a new trick to stir tensions” in the region.
In addition to the South China Sea, Kerry also discussed cybersecurity, Xi’s upcoming visit and human rights in the meeting with Wang, according to the State Department official traveling with Kerry. They agreed “that more dialogue and cooperation between the United States and China remains vital.”
Wang said China was willing to enhance co-operation with the U.S. in several areas, ranging from finance and trade to military-to-military relations and anti-terror efforts, according to a statement from China’s foreign ministry.
“What’s more important for China and the U.S. is to better manage these two prominent issues: building strategic mutual trust and achieving benign interaction in the Asia-Pacific,” Wang said.
The attraction of Southeast Asia for the major powers is clear: The region -- home to some 600 million people -- had a combined GDP of $2.6 trillion in 2014, making it the seventh largest economy in the world. It is on track to become the fourth largest by 2050, according to Asean.
Southeast Asia is also strategically located on some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with $5.3 trillion in global trade passing through its waterways each year, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.
“The future of the United States and the future of Asean are intertwined,” Kerry said at Wednesday’s Asean meeting. “That partnership reflects our many shared interests and America’s conviction that much of the history of the 21st century is going to be written right here.”