WASHINGTON – The United States called on Asean claimants to the South China Sea to resolve their differences with one another, so they can strengthen their “collective voice” in negotiations with China, said Washington’s top diplomat for East Asia on Wednesday.
Mr Daniel Kritenbrink said the US was particularly encouraged by recent agreements between Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as between Indonesia and Malaysia, to settle their sea boundaries and end long-running disputes over their overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea.
“We believe that US policy has bolstered regional confidence in US resolve, and it has empowered South China Sea claimants to speak up publicly to protect their own rights and interests,” he said, at a forum organised by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“Moving forward, we want to support South-east Asian claimants with both our words and our actions,” added Mr Kritenbrink.
He said that there had been a “clear and upward trend” of Chinese coercion in the contested waters, citing recent incidents, including one in May where Chinese vessels “engaged in unsafe manoeuvres” in the waters around Vietnam’s oil and gas installations.
Such provocative behaviour raises the risks for businesses, effectively pushing out competition and paving the way for China to push a joint development deal with its state-owned firms, said Mr Kritenbrink.
Washington opposes this, he said, adding: “The US supports nations in standing up for their interests and resisting pressure to accept any deal whereby they would be compelled to yield those rights (to natural resources in their exclusive economic zones) to any other country.”
He reiterated Washington’s stance that the US took no position on territorial claims in the South China Sea, but maintained that claimants’ maritime claims should be in accordance with international law.
The diplomat also said that the US was focused on helping countries in the region upgrade their maritime security, and that its regional strategy was to build on its relationships with partners instead of making them side with either Washington or Beijing.
“We’re not in the business of forcing countries to choose… (but) ensuring countries have choice and the ability to make their own decisions free from coercion,” he said.
Mr Kritenbrink also said that he saw a growing role for India in partnering with the US in the South China Sea. There would also be an expansion of collaboration among members of the Quad security group, which consists of Australia, India, Japan and the US, said the diplomat, who added that Washington welcomed the cooperation of other countries too.
The US’ focus across the region was to build the capacity of “allies, partners and friends” that shared the vision of a peaceful and stable world, said Mr Kritenbrink.
At the forum, Mr Kritenbrink, who accompanied US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on his trip to China earlier in June, also addressed the state of US-China ties.
Both countries agreed during Mr Blinken’s visit to look into increasing the number of flights between them to boost ties between their peoples, he said.
He added that while there were about 350 commercial flights a week between the US and China before the Covid-19 pandemic, that number has since dropped to 24.
“I’ve discovered it’s pretty hard to get to China. It’s pretty expensive right now,” he said.
He also said he hoped to close the gap between the number of US and Chinese students in each other’s countries, adding that there are about 300,000 Chinese studying in the US compared to the roughly 350 Americans in China right now.
Mr Kritenbrink said he was disappointed that there had been no resumption of talks between the militaries of the two countries.
“I would like to think we will get those channels back open at some point; we’re not there yet, but it really is vitally important,” he said.
At an earlier session, Ms Bonnie Glaser, Indo-Pacific managing director of the German Marshall Fund of the US, noted that a specific US-China military dialogue to address operational safety in the sea and air had not been convened for about a year and a half.
She called the freezing of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement forum “unfortunate”, given the forum’s role in addressing risky manoeuvres such as intercepting aircraft, which the US has accused China of carrying out.
“That was really the place where the US and China were talking about these dangerous intercepts, and how to prevent them,” she said.
Source : TheStraitsTimes