• Bloomberg


China believes territorial disputes in the region should be settled through direct talks with the countries concerned, the nation’s top foreign policy official said.

“We will never trade our core interests or swallow the bitter fruits that undermine our sovereignty, security and development interests,” Yang Jiechi said in a speech Saturday at the World Peace Forum in Beijing. Yang, a state councilor and former foreign minister, held talks earlier in the week in Vietnam to defuse tensions over a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by both countries.

China has intensified moves to assert its territorial sovereignty in the East and South China Seas, ratcheting up tensions with the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan. China has refused international efforts to resolve the conflicts and this month reiterated that it doesn’t recognize a United Nations tribunal investigating a complaint by the Philippines against China’s claims over the Spratly Islands.

“The problem now is that some countries are using outside influence to promote the internationalization of the South China Sea problems,” said Wu Shicun, president and senior research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, in an interview after Yang’s speech. “These countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines use American support to increase their antagonism to China.”

Yang’s remarks about direct negotiations indicate China wants to eliminate any third party, such as the U.S., Wu said.

Yang did not mention the U.S. role in regional territorial disputes, although China has opposed the American “pivot” to Asia, blaming it for increasing tensions in the South China Sea.

China seems to be making efforts to deny the U.S. military access to waters off the Chinese coast, said Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush, at the forum. Yet the American military presence in Asia has been a stabilizing force, and without it China’s neighbors might unite, he said. “It runs the risk of creating the very containment strategy undertaken by its own neighbors that China so vigorously protests against in its conversations with the United States,” he said.

Yang’s comments echo those of Premier Li Keqiang, who said in Greece on June 20 that China is committed to settling maritime disputes through dialogue and negotiation “on the basis of respecting historical facts and international law,” according to a report in the official Xinhua News Agency.

China will be resolute in safeguarding its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is conducive to safeguarding regional peace and order as well, Li said, according to Xinhua. The country will firmly oppose any act of hegemony in maritime affairs, he said.

Yang, who outranks Foreign Minister Wang Yi, visited Vietnam last week to defuse tensions over the placing of an oil rig, known as 981, last month by a Chinese state-owned company near the Paracel Islands. Known as the Xisha Islands in China, the area is claimed by both nations. The move led to skirmishes between coast guard vessels, the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat and anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam.

On the same day as Yang held talks with Vietnamese officials, China’s Maritime Safety Administration announced the Nanhai 9 oil rig had left waters off southern China and was heading southwest into the South China Sea. Three other rigs, Nanhai 2, 4 and 5, were also in the South China Sea, it said. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday the rigs were in China’s coastal waters off southern Guangdong and Hainan provinces.

“This is normal development activities,” Wu said. “It has nothing to do with the Xisha Islands.”

Vietnam has prepared evidence for a legal suit challenging China’s claim to waters off the Vietnamese coast, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said in an interview last month. A legal filing would follow a case against China submitted by the Philippines to the U.N. over contested shoals off its coast.

China and Vietnam continue to play cat and mouse near the oil rig. In separate incidents on June 20, Chinese military aircraft flew over Vietnamese law enforcement, coast guard and fisheries surveillance vessels, according to VietnamPlus, the online news service of the official Vietnam News Agency. Chinese coast guard ships, a fisheries boat and tugboat also tried to ram the Vietnamese vessels, it said.