KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia on Tuesday called for more efforts to find a peaceful solution to rising tensions in the disputed South China Sea, as the U.S. and the Philippines said they would demand that China stop land reclamation and other actions there.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended Beijing’s moves, saying they were in Chinese territory and that there should be no double standards on the issue, in reference to land reclamation work by other claimants.
He urged all parties to support China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in speeding up negotiations for a code of conduct that governs behavior in the resource-rich and busy waterway.
“It’s not a constructive move to exercise double standards on the issue,” Wang told reporters. “China and ASEAN are capable enough to work together to maintain the peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
China, Taiwan and several ASEAN members — the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei — have wrangled over ownership and control of the South China Sea in a conflict that has flared on and off for decades.
Tensions rose last year when China began to build artificial islands in the Spratly chain, which the U.S. and Beijing’s rival claimant countries fear could impede freedom of navigation and overflights in a major transit area for the world’s oil and merchandise.
The disputes have led to deadly confrontations between China and Vietnam, and Washington and governments in the region are concerned that boosting military deployments increase the risk of miscalculations and accidental clashes that can spiral out of control.
U.S. officials have said that the amount of land reclaimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan in the disputed area over the last 45 years totaled a mere 40 hectares (100 acres), a fraction of the more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) reclaimed by China in the last 18 months alone.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said ASEAN must play a role to ensure an amicable settlement in the dispute over the sea.
“Above all, we must be seen to address these issues peacefully and cooperatively,” he said at the start of a meeting with his ASEAN counterparts. “We have made a positive start but we need to do more.”
Washington has said it would call for a halt to aggressive actions by China and other rival nations to allow a diplomatic solution to a problem that threatens regional stability.
Washington is not a party to the conflict and has a policy of not taking sides in the territorial dispute, but says a peaceful resolution of the problem and freedom of navigation in the disputed waters were in the U.S. national interest. China rejects any U.S. involvement.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Tuesday that Manila would support the U.S. call in the meetings this week, but would not agree to be bound by it unless China and other countries locked in the conflict also do so.
“As a means of de-escalating tensions in the region, the Philippines fully supports and will proactively promote the call of the United States on the ‘three halts’ — a halt in reclamation, halt in construction and a halt in aggressive actions that could further heighten tensions,” del Rosario said in a statement.
“We have to emphasize, however, that this should not in any way legitimize the status of the features reclaimed by China,” he said.
Australia will also register its concerns over rising tensions in the South China Sea at the Malaysian meetings, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement.
ASEAN foreign ministers will meet their counterparts from the U.S., Chinese, Australia and several other countries in the ASEAN Regional Forum, an annual Asian security gathering, in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry would tackle the territorial issues in Malaysia.
“This is a forum in which critical security issues need to be brought up and discussed,” Toner told reporters, adding the U.S. would view as “provocative” any moves to “significantly increase the physical size or functionality of disputed features, or to militarize them.”