Int’l pressure on China rises
KUALA LUMPUR—China came under mounting pressure on Wednesday over its land reclamation in the South China Sea with both the United States and Japan criticizing it for militarizing the disputed waters.
On Tuesday, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) finally made a stand against China’s reclamation in the South China Sea.
US Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue during a meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the 48th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting in Malaysia that has been dominated by tensions over the Chinese moves.
The annual gathering is hosted by the 10-member Asean, and includes countries from across Asia, the United States, Russia and elsewhere. It continues until Thursday.
Beijing has insisted it will not discuss the South China Sea during formal meetings at the forum, saying disagreements must be handled on a bilateral basis between rival claimants.
Diplomats and analysts say this stance is aimed at preventing Asean from presenting a more united front.
But Asean foreign ministers rebuffed China’s stance, saying the issue was too important to ignore.
“Secretary Kerry reiterated his concern about rising tensions over disputed claims in the South China Sea and China’s large-scale reclamation, construction and militarization of features there,” a senior US state department official told reporters.
“He encouraged China, along with the other claimants, to halt problematic actions in order to create space for diplomacy,” the official said.
On Wednesday, Wang said the land reclamation had stopped.
“China has already stopped,” Wang told reporters. “Just take an airplane to take a look.”
A Southeast Asian diplomatic source, however, said Wang told his counterparts in the region at a high-level security forum that Beijing would press on with plans for construction of infrastructure on the artificial islands.
In Manila, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said China had stopped reclamation because it had already finished building the artificial islands.
“At the same time, China announced they are moving on to Phase 2, which is construction of facilities on the reclaimed features. The Philippines views these activities as destabilizing,” Jose said.
In June, China said the land reclamation would wind up soon but to be followed by construction of infrastructure on the artificial islands.
The Chinese foreign ministry made it clear that the halt to the land reclamation was not an acquiescence to pressure, whether from the United States or from Asean rival claimants and that the construction of infrastructure on the islands was within the rights of China, as it had “undisputed sovereignty” over the South China Sea.
China appears to have calculated the completion of the artificial islands in time for the peaking of the typhoon season in the South China Sea.
In brief remarks to reporters after his talks with Kerry, Wang said China would pursue “peaceful discussions” to resolve the South China Sea dispute. He did not elaborate.
Beijing has sparked alarm by expanding tiny reefs in the South China Sea and constructing military posts on some of them to try to shore up its claim to almost the entire sea, including waters close to the shores of its smaller neighbors.
The United States and Asean nations have called for a halt to the land reclamation activities, but China has refused.
Asean foreign ministers warned on Tuesday after they met in Kuala Lumpur that China’s moves were raising regional tensions, with Manila slamming Beijing’s “unilateral and aggressive activities.”
State Minister Minoru Kiuchi, Japan’s envoy to the talks, told delegates to the forum on Wednesday he had “deep concern over … large-scale land reclamation, the construction of outposts and their use for military purposes,” according to a Japanese government statement.
Tokyo is locked in a confrontation of its own with Beijing over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei—all Asean members—also have various claims as does Taiwan, many of which overlap.
China’s neighbors have increasingly chafed at what is seen as mounting violations by Beijing of a regional pledge not to take actions that could stoke conflict.
Before their meeting, Kerry had said he and Wang would also discuss a range of bilateral issues including plans for a September US visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping and China’s “great cooperation” on the recent Iran nuclear deal.
Wang’s announcement of a halt to the land reclamation may be an attempt to lower the diplomatic temperature for Xi’s US visit.
Kerry, in a meeting on Wednesday with Asean foreign ministers, said Washington shared their desire “to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
He stressed the need to maintain the security of sea-lanes and fishing grounds and to settle disputes peacefully.
“We want to ensure the security of critical sea-lanes and fishing grounds, and we want to see that disputes in the area are managed peacefully and on the basis of international law,” Kerry said.
A Washington-based think tank said this week Beijing could be preparing to build a second airstrip on an artificial island.
China is already building a 3,000-meter runway on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, which could ultimately be used for combat operations, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Despite strong public comments by several Asean foreign ministers about the need to reduce tensions in the South China Sea, the bloc had yet to issue a customary joint communiqué following the foreign ministers’ annual talks on Tuesday.
“On the South China Sea, I think we are probably nearing a formulation,” said Jakrit Srivali, director general of the Asean department at Thailand’s foreign ministry.
Other issues had also held up the statement, he said without elaborating.
A communiqué was expected at the end of the joint meetings between Asean, the United States, China, Japan and other countries on Thursday, senior officials said.–Wire reports
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