US wants freeze on acts stoking tensions in South China Sea

July 13, 2014 - 6:16:17 am

WASHINGTON:  The United States said it wants China and rival countries to clamp a voluntary freeze on actions aggravating territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Michael Fuchs, US deputy assistant secretary of state for Strategy and Multilateral Affairs, said no country was solely responsible for escalating tensions in the region. But he reiterated the US view that “provocative and unilateral” behaviour by China had raised questions about its willingness to abide by international law.

Washington wants the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China to have “a real and substantive discussion” to flesh out a call for self-restraint contained in a Declaration of Conduct they agreed to in 2002, with a view toward signing a formal maritime Code of Conduct, Fuchs said.

“We’ve called for claimant states to clarify and agree to voluntarily freeze certain actions and activities that escalate disputes and cause instability as described in the DOC,” Fuchs told a Washington think tank, giving details of a proposal he said had been put to both China and Asean states, but which has received little public attention.

A US official said the issue was raised again this week with China at the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a bilateral forum that seeks to manage an increasingly complex and at times testy relationship. The official declined to give details of China’s response. 

China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain oil and gas deposits and has rich fishery resources. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also lay claim to parts of the sea, where about $5tr of ship-borne trade passes every year. 

Recent weeks have seen flare-ups in the disputes, including anti-Chinese violence in Vietnam after  China’s state oil company deployed an oil rig in waters also claimed by Hanoi. 

Fuchs said deciding what elements were included in a freeze would ultimately be up to the claimants, but these could include recommitting not to establish new outposts or seize territory another claimant had occupied before the 2002 declaration. 

Claimants could also clarify what types of actions were provocative and what were merely efforts to maintain a long-existing presence dating back to before 2002, Fuchs added.

“For example, alterations that fundamentally change the nature, size or capabilities of the presence could fall under the freeze, whereas routine maintenance operations would be permissible,” he said.