BANDAR, SERI BEGAWAN – China traded barbs Thursday with the United States and Japan regarding the territorial disputes it is having with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the South China Sea, telling the nonclaimants to mind their own business.
“China and ASEAN have agreed that the disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully through consultations and negotiations between countries directly concerned, and countries that are not parties to the disputes should not get involved,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said at the East Asia Summit in Brunei.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged all countries concerned to abide by international law and refrain from unilateral action and the use of force in addressing the South China Sea issue, making an indirect reference to Beijing’s increasingly assertive claims to most of the disputed waters.
“Japan and other members of the international community have an interest in peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Abe said after the summit. “The ocean is an important international public asset, and we think basic rules on the ocean such as peaceful resolution of conflicts, freedom of navigation and observance of international law, including the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, should be respected.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who participated in the summit in place of President Barack Obama, said the voices of both claimant states and nonclaimants must be heard because the nonclaimants share an interest in peace and stability, freedom of navigation and the principle of unimpeded lawful commerce in the sea, according to an ASEAN diplomatic source.
Li, attending the ASEAN-related summits for the first time since becoming premier in March, disagreed, saying freedom of navigation in the South China Sea “has never been an issue and will never be one.”
Eleven of the 18 EAS members referred to the South China Sea issue at the summit, a senior Japanese official said.
The South China Sea, claimed wholly or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, has some of the world’s busiest shipping routes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas resources.
Abe said Japan has a “high interest” in official consultations started by the 10-member ASEAN and China in September to draft a legally binding code of conduct to reduce territorial and maritime conflicts in the South China Sea.
“We hope to see the compilation at an early date of a legally binding and effective COC that will contribute to the settlement of conflicts,” Abe said.
Li said China “will work for positive, steady progress in the consultations” on the code “on the basis of consensus building.”
Like Abe, Kerry urged ASEAN and China to speed up such talks. “Dialogue is essential but not a substitute to concrete action. Without real progress, we cannot reduce risks, miscalculation and misinterpretation,” he was quoted as saying by the ASEAN source.
While Beijing has lobbied some ASEAN members to prevent the group from reaching a consensus on the South China Sea issue, Washington has encouraged ASEAN to maintain coherence and unity to bolster their position against China during negotiations on the code.
The United States has not publicly taken sides, but U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that Washington has a vital interest in freedom of navigation in the sea and is eager to see an effective code signed.
Speaking at a post-summit press conference, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said that while ASEAN and China agreed to have more regular meetings next year, ASEAN will continue to work on practical measures, such as establishing communications hotlines, including those for search and rescue missions.