U.S. Urges Negotiation in South China Sea Disputes

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2011 — The Unit­ed States, like the rest of the world, has a deep inter­est in ensur­ing free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in the South Chi­na Sea and in help­ing defuse ten­sions over ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­putes there, a senior defense offi­cial said yes­ter­day.

Speak­ing on back­ground at a Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies con­fer­ence on mar­itime secu­ri­ty in the South Chi­na Sea, the offi­cial reit­er­at­ed Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates’ and Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Rod­ham Clinton’s sup­port for peace­ful res­o­lu­tion regard­ing ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­putes in the strate­gi­cal­ly crit­i­cal region.

The South Chi­na Sea is a vital ship­ping lane that pos­sess­es vast oil and gas deposits. Chi­na, Tai­wan, Viet­nam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philip­pines all lay claim to over­lap­ping parts of it, caus­ing region­al fric­tion and sev­er­al recent con­fronta­tions.

“The Unit­ed States, like every nation, has an inter­est in the free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and open access to Asia’s mar­itime com­mons and with respect for inter­na­tion­al law in the South Chi­na Sea,” the offi­cial said at the­fo­rum.

He cit­ed Gates’ com­ments ear­li­er this month at the Shangri-La Dia­logue secu­ri­ty sum­mit in Sin­ga­pore, where the sec­re­tary empha­sized U.S. sup­port for “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and unim­ped­ed eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and com­merce and respect for inter­na­tion­al law.”

Gates warned at the sum­mit that lack of a strong mul­ti­lat­er­al mech­a­nism for nations to set­tle their dis­putes peace­ful­ly could cause prob­lems to esca­late. “I fear that with­out rules of the road, with­out agreed approach­es to deal with these prob­lems, that there will be clash­es,” he told atten­dees. “I think that serves nobody’s inter­ests.”

The sec­re­tary urged the coun­tries involved to estab­lish a code of con­duct based on an agree­ment between the Asso­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Nations and Chi­na to pro­mote peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of their ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­putes.

“Giv­en recent events, we would hope that all par­ties will be able to make tan­gi­ble progress” toward cre­at­ing this code of con­duct, the defense offi­cial said.

Until that can be achieved, the Unit­ed States rec­og­nizes cus­tom­ary inter­na­tion­al law, as reflect­ed in the U.N. Con­ven­tion of the Laws of the Sea, as pro­vid­ing “clear guid­ance” regard­ing the mar­itime domain, he said.

The Unit­ed States does not take posi­tions on ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­putes in the South Chi­na Sea, he said. It does, how­ev­er, urge nations to pur­sue their ter­ri­to­r­i­al claims and accom­pa­ny­ing rights to mar­itime space in accor­dance with inter­na­tion­al law and through diplo­mat­ic means.

Although encour­aged by nations’ stat­ed inter­est in peace­ful res­o­lu­tion, “we remain con­cerned” that actions haven’t always been in line with that goal and could lead to fur­ther inci­dents, the offi­cial said.

This, he said, “could threat­en the safe­ty, secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty of the region.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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