U.S. and Beijing Offer Competing Views on South China Sea
By JANE PERLEZ and CHRIS BUCKLEY
JUNE 7, 2016
By REUTERS AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS on Publish Date June 7, 2016. Photo by Damir Sagolj/Reuters. Watch in Times Video »
BEIJING — Secretary of State John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart laid out diverging positions regarding the South China Sea on Tuesday, indicating that annual talks between the United States and China had done little to bridge the differences over what has become one of the most volatile issues in their relationship.
In Beijing, a senior American official also revealed that President Obama had warned President Xi Jinping of China during a meeting in March about the maritime friction and about Washington’s obligations to a regional ally, the Philippines.
On Tuesday, at the end of what is called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Mr. Kerry praised the talks as an “essential mechanism” to air differences and nurture cooperation.
But comments both by Mr. Kerry and by State Councilor Yang Jiechi of China suggested that their governments remained far apart on the continuing disputes in the South China Sea. China has laid claim to many islands and outcrops across the sea that are also claimed by Southeast Asian countries, notably the Philippines and Vietnam.
“I reiterated America’s fundamental support for negotiations, and a peaceful resolution based on the rule of law, as well as, obviously, our concern about any unilateral steps by anyone, whichever country, to alter the status quo,” Mr. Kerry said during a joint appearance with Chinese officials in the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing.
After Mr. Kerry spoke, Mr. Yang, who steers Chinese foreign policy and is senior to the foreign minister, said China remained adamantly opposed to an arbitration case brought by the Philippines to assert its claims in the sea.
A court in The Hague is expected to deliver its decision in the case soon, but Beijing has said it will not accept the result.
“This has not changed and will not change,” Mr. Yang said of China’s opposition to the case. He repeated China’s position that it is willing to negotiate over the disputes, but only with each individual country holding a rival claim, rather than collectively.
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“The islands of the South China Sea have been Chinese territory since antiquity,” Mr. Yang said. “China has every right to uphold its territorial rights and legitimate maritime rights and interests.”
The Obama administration has urged China to negotiate with Southeast Asian nations collectively to solve the disputes, and it has warned Beijing against its energetic development of reefs and outcrops into artificial islands with military facilities.
The United States recently sent military ships and planes near some of those islands, to make the point that it would insist on freedom of navigation in the area, and Beijing bristled at the gesture.
This Strategic and Economic Dialogue was the last for the Obama administration, and there is uncertainty about how much importance the next president might give to the annual talks. But Chinese and American officials said there was value in discussing contentious issues face to face, even if no solution was in sight.
The South China Sea issue came up early in the meetings, when the United States warned China against any action in the waterway involving American treaty obligations to the Philippines, a senior State Department official said.
The warning was a reiteration of what Mr. Obama told Mr. Xi during their meeting in Washington in March, the official said.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in keeping with diplomatic custom. On Sunday, before the formal start of the talks, Chinese and American officials, including some uniformed military officers from both sides, talked about security matters. Zhang Yesui, China’s executive vice foreign minister, and Antony J. Blinken, the deputy secretary of state, led the delegations.
“The islands of the South
China Sea have been Chinese
territory since antiquity.”
State Councilor Yang Jiechi of China
The Philippines has long claimed Scarborough Shoal, an outcrop off its western coast that was once used as a firing range by the United States military. In 2012, China took over the shoal by expelling Philippine fishermen and deploying a patrol of coast guard vessels to prevent the fishermen’s returning.
Scarborough Shoal is the largest outcrop in the dispute between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea. The United States, which now has access to five military bases in the Philippines, recently flew a Navy plane over the shoal in a demonstration to China of American concerns. The United States and the Philippines also recently conducted joint patrols in the waterway.
Since China began building artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago near the Scarborough Shoal, former military officials have hinted that Beijing would start to build the shoal into a more permanent platform able to accommodate military installations.
The security session on Sunday also included discussion of an episode last month involving two Chinese fighter jets that flew dangerously close to an EP-3 American spy plane in international airspace off the coast of Hainan, the southernmost province of China, the senior State Department official said.
The Chinese aircraft came as close as 50 feet to the American plane, the Pentagon said at the time. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing denied that the Chinese had flown too close and described the encounter as normal.
It was unclear whether China’s senior military leaders had ordered the two jets to get close to the American plane or whether the pilots were acting independently and trying to show off their flight skills.
Also discussed at the meeting were human rights and the status of foreign nongovernmental organizations in China. The Obama administration has sharply criticized a new Chinese law aimed at controlling and limiting the work of such groups on issues including rights for migrant workers, climate change and the rule of law. The American Chamber of Commerce in China has expressed disappointment with the law, saying that it would harm the companies it works with.
The law, scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, requires foreign groups to register with the police, who will be empowered to examine all aspects of their operations. It also mandates that the groups find official Chinese partners.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Yang, the state councilor, said the organizations’ activities would not be obstructed if the groups observed China’s laws.
At a news conference at his hotel after meeting with Mr. Xi, Mr. Kerry said that he was reassured by the Chinese president’s explanations of the law.
The United States “forcefully” presented its objections to the law, he said, adding, “We have to show some patience.”
“What I heard directly from President Xi, actually, was that China intends to remain open, stay open, to open up even more than it is today,” Mr. Kerry said, “and that it does not see these laws are going to be applied in any way whatsoever that affects their ability to open up and to do business.”
He said he found it “not insignificant that the president of the country” spoke directly about the problem. “Now the question is, is that in fact what happens?”
Follow Jane Perlez @JanePerlez and Chris Buckley @ChuBailiang on Twitter.