Oct 11, 2013

    Do more to ease sea rows, says US

    THE United States and its allies pushed yesterday for accelerated efforts to lower tensions in the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing's assertive sovereignty claims have raised fears of potential conflict.

    A day after China showed a commitment to an eventual code of conduct to prevent conflict in the strategic body of water, Japan and the Philippines joined Washington's calls to hasten diplomacy.

    US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on the sidelines of the East Asia summit in Brunei that such a code was needed.

    "A code of conduct is a necessity for the long term, but nations can also reduce the risk of miscommunication and miscalculation by taking steps today," Mr Kerry said.

    He did not single out any country by name, but China has come under growing pressure over its claims to virtually all of the body of water, and acts interpreted by some of its neighbours as aggressive.

    Mr Kerry added that "all claimants have a responsibility to clarify and align their claims with international law".

    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, which is embroiled in a heated dispute with China over islands and waters between the two powers, told reporters that he "looked forward to the early conclusion of a code of conduct which is legally binding".

    "The sea should be ruled by law and not by force," he added.

    Philippine President Benigno Aquino told the closed-door summit that a code of conduct should be completed "as soon as possible", according to a statement by his government.

    Agreement on a code of conduct has long been a stumbling block between China and some South-east Asian nations, particularly rival claimants the Philippines and Vietnam.

    Malaysia and summit hosts Brunei also have competing claims to parts of the sea.

    China has struck a friendlier tone in recent months, agreeing to discuss the code with Asean.

    The move is seen by some analysts as little more than a stalling tactic.

    The promise to discuss the code, made to Asean leaders on Wednesday by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, "means that China will use consensus building to slow the consultation process down", said Dr Carl Thayer, a China specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

    The spectre of a calamitous US debt default also emerged as a major issue at the summit, held in the absence of US President Barack Obama, who was forced to stay home due to the US government shutdown.

    Mr Kerry tried to assure Asian leaders that Washington would end its political stalemate, after China voiced concern about the possible default.

    China is the biggest foreign holder of US Treasury bonds, worth a total of US$1.28 trillion (S$1.6 trillion), and Mr Li expressed "concern about Washington's debt-ceiling problem".

    He conveyed that message in talks with Mr Obama's stand-in, Mr Kerry, late on Wednesday in Brunei, Xinhua news agency reported.

    A US official travelling with Mr Kerry confirmed that the debt ceiling was discussed.

    "Secretary Kerry made clear that this is a moment in Washington politics, and reaffirmed the President's commitment to resolving the issue," the official told reporters.