Jul 02, 2013

    US: Make progress on sea rows

    UNITED States Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday pressed China and South-east Asian nations to make progress on a plan to ease tensions in the South China Sea, reminding the region that Washington had national interests at stake in the disputes.

    Mr Kerry, who made the comments as he arrived in Brunei for a regional security meeting, was speaking a day after China said it would hold formal discussions with South-east Asian nations over the maritime disputes later this year.

    While marking a move forward, the talks are not seen as a major breakthrough in protracted efforts to persuade China to commit to a binding agreement over the energy-rich sea, where Beijing's assertive claims have stoked tensions.

    "We have a strong interest in the manner in which the disputes of the South China Sea are addressed, and in the conduct of the parties," Mr Kerry said in opening remarks at the conference.

    "We very much hope to see progress soon on a substantive code of conduct (COC), in order to help ensure stability in this vital region."

    China said in a joint statement with Asean on Sunday that it has agreed to hold "official consultations" on a proposed COC governing naval actions at a meeting with Asean senior officials in China in September.

    China, accused by the Philippines on Sunday of causing "increasing militarisation" of the sea, stopped short of saying that the meeting would mark the start of actual negotiations, and has shown little urgency in initiating substantial talks over the proposed code.

    Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario gave a lukewarm response late on Sunday, when asked about the significance of the proposed talks.

    "The agreement was that there will be a process that will be started with a meeting in China... I'd like to believe that China is earnest in terms of moving forward in this process."

    Naval stand-offs and clashes between the Philippines, Vietnam and China since last year have sharply raised tensions over the sea at a time when the US is shifting its military attention and resources back to Asia.

    In his opening remarks, Mr Kerry attempted to ease concerns in Beijing that the US rebalancing of forces to Asia was aimed at countering China's rising power.

    "We have many goals. We have economic and security interests. But I want to emphasise, importantly, our actions are not intended to contain or to counterbalance any one country," he said.