China warned the US not to get involved in South China Sea territorial disputes yesterday as US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton headed to Beijing pledging to pass on a strong message on the need to calm regional tensions.
The last time Clinton visited the Chinese capital, plans to highlight improving US-China ties were derailed by a blind Chinese dissident whose dramatic flight to the US embassy exposed the deeply uneasy relationship.
The irritants this time are disputes over tiny islets and craggy outcrops in oil and gas-rich areas of the South and East China Seas that have set China against US regional allies, such as Taiwan and the Philippines.
As Clinton traveled back to Beijing yesterday for a 24-hour visit, US officials say the message is once again one of cooperation and partnership — and an important chance to compare notes during a year of political transition.
However, the unease remains, sharpened by disputes in the South and East China seas that have rattled nerves across the region and led to testy exchanges with Washington just as US President Barack Obama’s administration “pivots” to the Asia-Pacific region following years of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) suggested at a daily news briefing that Washington was not a helpful force in the maritime disputes.
“We have noted that the United States has stated many times that it does not take sides,” he said when asked about the US role. “We hope that the United States will abide by its promises and do more that is beneficial to regional peace and stability, and not the opposite.”
Chinese newspapers, including Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, have suggested the South China Sea territorial claims are among Beijing’s “core national interests” — a term suggesting they share the same importance as sovereignty over Tibet and Xinjiang.
Hong did not directly answer a question on whether that was the government’s official position.
“China, like any other country in the world, has the duty to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.
In Jakarta yesterday, Clinton urged China and its Southeast Asian neighbors to move quickly on a code of conduct for the South China Sea and stressed that disputes should be resolved “without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force.”
Progress has been thwarted in recent months by China’s increasingly assertive posture, which has included establishing a garrison on a disputed island and stepping up patrols of contested waters.
That suggests Beijing has no intention of backing down on its unilateral claim to sovereignty over a huge stretch of ocean and potentially equally large energy reserves.
Clinton faces a balancing act, pushing on the territorial disputes while keeping cooperation on track on other issues, including reining in the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, the Syria crisis and economic disputes that have long bedeviled the two countries.
“One of the challenges before us is to demonstrate how we deal with areas in which we have different perceptions and where we face challenging issues on the ground, or in this case on the water,” one senior US official said.