Saturday, May 16, 2015

• Beijing rebukes US over South China Sea islands row By Benjamin Haas

 Beijing rebukes US over South China Sea islands row
By Benjamin Haas

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) speaks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi prior to their meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing on May 16, 2015 (AFP Photo/Kim Kyung-Hoon)


Beijing (AFP) - China's foreign minister told top US diplomat John Kerry on Saturday that Beijing was "unshakeable" in its defence of sovereignty, as tensions between the powers mount over Chinese island-building in strategic but disputed waters.

The United States is weighing sending warships and surveillance aircraft within 12 nautical miles -- the normal territorial zone around natural land -- of artificial islands that Beijing is building in the South China Sea.

Such a move could lead to a standoff on the high seas in an area home to vital global shipping lanes and believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.

Beijing regards almost the whole of the South China Sea as its own and after talks in the Chinese capital Foreign Minister Wang Yi said sternly: "The determination of the Chinese side to safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock and it is unshakeable."

Kerry was less assertive in public, saying at their joint press conference that Washington was "concerned about the pace and scope of China’s land reclamation" and urged it "to take actions that will join with everyone to reduce tensions".

The region needed "smart diplomacy", he said, rather than "outposts and military strips".

Senior State Department officials had said ahead of the meeting that Kerry would take a tough line and "leave his Chinese interlocutors in absolutely no doubt that the United States remains committed to maintain freedom of navigation".

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) holds a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) during their meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing on May 16, 2015 (AFP Photo/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

"That's a principle that we are determined to uphold," the official added.

The world's top two economies have significant commercial ties and Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to pay a state visit to the United States in September.

But China's ambitions for a place on the world's political stage commensurate with its economic role have seen it cross the United States in multiple fields, and the two have long-running disputes over issues ranging from trade to cyberspying to human rights.

At the same time the United States is China's second-biggest trading partner after the European Union, with two-way commerce worth $555 billion last year, according to Chinese figures.

Beijing is the heavily indebted US government's biggest foreign creditor, figures from Washington showed Friday, reclaiming top spot from Japan with more than $1.26 trillion in Treasury bonds.

Kerry was due to meet senior political and military leaders later.
 
Satellite images taken in January 2010 (L) and April 2015 shows a section of West Reef -- which is part of the London Reefs group of western Spratly Islands, occupied by Vietnam, in the disputed South China Sea, showing land reclamation (AFP Photo/Digitalglobe)

- 'Hegemonic presence' -

Beijing bases its territorial claims in the South China Sea on a segmented line dating back to Chinese maps of the 1940s.

US officials increasingly believe Washington needs to send a clear signal about China's activities around the Spratly Islands and other disputed territories, while avoiding triggering a crisis.

Pentagon officials last week revealed that Beijing is building artificial islands on top of South China Sea coral reefs at an unprecedented pace, in a land reclamation effort dubbed a "great wall of sand" by one American commander.

The rapid construction comes to 2,000 acres (800 hectares), with 75 percent of the total created in the last five months alone, and includes a runway said to be 3,100 metres (10,200 feet) long.

US government officials stress that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, only natural land masses create a territorial claim, not artificial islands.

"You can't build sovereignty," an official said.

But the United States has never ratified the convention itself.

Beijing's increasing assertiveness has raised deep concerns across the region in recent years -- as well as its South China Sea claims, which overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, it is in dispute with Japan over islets in the East China Sea.

Beijing defends the island-building as taking place within its own territory and intended to enhance its ability to carry out international obligations such as search and rescue.

In a commentary Saturday, China's official news agency Xinhua said the United States was guilty of "thinly veiled hypocrisy".

"The United States is not a party in the South China Sea disputes, which are between China and other claimants and should be handled by those directly involved," it said.

"Washington has no valid grounds whatsoever to point an accusing finger at Beijing over South China Sea. Instead, it needs to look at itself in the mirror," it went on, accusing the United States of seeking "a pretext to maintain its hegemonic presence in the region".

The United States is pursuing a foreign policy "pivot" towards Asia which has rattled China.


 =====================================

US, China remain at odds over South China Sea activity
By MATTHEW LEE


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a joint press conference following meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, Saturday, May 16, 2015. Kerry is in China to press Beijing to halt increasingly assertive actions it is taking in the South China Sea that have alarmed the United States and China's smaller neighbors. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP) 


BEIJING (AP) — The United States and China held firm Saturday to deep disagreements over increasingly assertive Chinese activity in disputed areas of the South China Sea, as Beijing politely but pointedly rejected U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's push for it to reduce tensions.

After meeting in the Chinese capital, both Kerry and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed the importance of dialogue to resolve the competing claims, but neither showed any sign of bending in their positions over Chinese land reclamation projects that have alarmed the United States and China's smaller neighbors. The U.S. and most members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations want a halt to the projects, which they suspect are aimed at building islands and other land features over which China can claim sovereignty.

"We are concerned about the pace and scope of China's land reclamation in the South China Sea," Kerry said, urging China to speed up talks with ASEAN on binding guidelines on how maritime activity in disputed areas should be handled. "And, I urged China, through Foreign Minister Wang, to take actions that will join with everybody in helping to reduce tensions and increase the prospect of diplomatic solutions."

"I think we agree that the region needs smart diplomacy in order to conclude the ASEAN-China code of conduct and not outposts and military strips," Kerry told reporters at a joint news conference with Wang.

But Wang signaled that while China was prepared to talk, it would not back down on the construction which he said "is something that falls fully within the scope of China's sovereignty."

"The determination of the Chinese side to safeguard our own sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock, and it is unshakable," he said. "It has always been our view that we need to find appropriate solutions to the issues we have through communications and negotiations that we have among the parties directly concerned with peaceful and diplomatic means on the basis of respecting historical facts and international norms. This position will remain unchanged in the future."


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after their joint press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing Saturday, May 16, 2015. Kerry is in China to press Beijing to halt increasingly assertive actions it is taking in the South China Sea that have alarmed the United States and China's smaller neighbors. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)Wang added that the differences between China and the U.S. could be managed "as long as we can avoid misunderstanding and, even more importantly, avoid miscalculation."

The Chinese claims and land reclamation projects have rattled the region where South China Sea islands and reefs are contested by China and five other Asian governments and activities have led to clashes, accompanied by nationalistic protests and occasional serious diplomatic implications.

The U.S. says it takes no position on the sovereignty claims but insists they must be negotiated. Washington also says ensuring maritime safety and access to some of the world's busiest commercial shipping routes is a U.S. national security priority.

China has bristled at what it sees as U.S. interference in the region and wants to negotiate with the ASEAN countries individually, something those much smaller nations fear will not be fair.

In one disputed area, the Spratly Islands, U.S. officials say China has reclaimed about 2,000 acres of dry land since 2014 that could be used as airstrips or for military purposes. The U.S. argues that man-made constructions cannot be used to claim sovereignty.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a joint press conference following meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, Saturday, May 16, 2015. Kerry is in China to press Beijing to halt increasingly assertive actions it is taking in the South China Sea that have alarmed the United States and China's smaller neighbors. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)
 
Obama administration officials have declined to comment on reports that it may deploy military assets, or that it is considering a demonstration of freedom of navigation within 12 nautical miles of the islands' notional territorial zone. But they have said many of the features claimed by China in the disputed Spratlys are submerged and do not carry territorial rights, and said that China cannot "manufacture sovereignty."

Despite the clear disagreements over the South China Sea, Kerry and Wang said they were on track to make progress in other areas, notably on climate change, the fight against violent extremism and preparations for the next round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in June and Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Washington in September. They expressed pleasure with their cooperation in the ongoing Iran nuclear talks, their solidarity in trying to denuclearize North Korea and combat diseases such as the deadly Ebola virus.

Kerry will wrap up the China portion of his Asia trip in meetings with Xi, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and the country's top military officer.

On Sunday, Kerry heads to Seoul where he will be meeting senior South Korean officials and deliver a speech on cyber security and related issues.

Kerry will return to Washington after delivering a speech on a proposed Trans-Pacific trade agreement in Seattle on Tuesday.


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