In spite of China’s protests, the United States and the Philippines will call for a stop to island-building work, military deployments and other forceful activities that bring strains up in the disputed South China Sea in an annual diplomatic meeting in Malaysia, officials said Tuesday.
Beijing has contradicted any notice of the prickly territorial rifts in the meetings of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their Asian and western counterparts. In any case, Washington has said it would require a stop to forceful activities by China and other rival countries to permit a diplomatic solution to a problem that threatens regional stability.
“Philippines would push the US 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.” Philippines foreign secretary Albert del Rosario said on Tuesday.
“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.
“We have to emphasize, however, that this should not in any way legitimize the status of the features reclaimed by China,” del Rosario said, alluding to huge artificial islands that China began building a year ago on no less than seven disputed reefs.
China, the Philippines and four different governments have wrangled over possession and control of the South China Sea, a resource-rich and busy waterway, in a contention that has flared on and off for quite a long time. Strains flared a year ago when China started work to fabricate artificial islands in the Spratly, in the midst of reasons for alarm the activities could obstruct flexibility of route and overflights in a major transit area for the world’s oil and merchandise.
Washington is not a party to the conflict and has a policy of not taking sides in the territorial row, but says a peaceful resolution of the problem and freedom of navigation in the disputed waters were in the US national interest. China rejects any US involvement.
The disputes have led to deadly confrontations between China and Vietnam, and Washington and governments in the region are worried that boosting military deployments increase the risk of miscalculations and accidental clashes that can spiral out of control.
Chinese authorities say the disputes ought not be talked about in the meetings in Malaysia. Top south-east Asian diplomats will meet their US and Chinese counterparts in the Asean Regional Forum, an annual Asian security gathering, in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
In Washington, US State Department representative Mark Toner said on Monday that secretary of state John Kerry would handle the regional and 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 US would view as “provocative” any moves to “significantly increase the physical size or functionality of disputed features, or to militarize them.”