US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel yesterday warned fellow defense chiefs that a growing number of maritime incidents and tensions in disputed Asian waters increase the risk of a dangerous international confrontation.
Hagel and his counterparts from Southeast Asia, China and six other countries wrapped up two days of talks in Brunei that took place as the US prepares for an expected military strike against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons.
China has faced increasing accusations of bullying in asserting its claim to nearly the whole of the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by several Southeast Asian countries. Tokyo and Beijing have also played cat and mouse in the East China Sea over disputed islands. Japan earlier this week scrambled fighter jets after a Chinese government plane approached airspace Japan claims as its own.
Hagel warned his counterparts in Brunei that actions at sea to advance territorial claims “increase the risk of confrontation, undermine regional stability and dim the prospects for diplomacy,” according to a prepared text of his remarks.
“All the countries are concerned that a more aggressive pursuit of claims could provoke a conflict,” a senior US defense official added.
Some ministers from the 10-nation ASEAN proposed practical steps to avert conflict, including setting up a hotline between ASEAN states and China, measures to avoid collisions and an agreement on “no first use of force,” US officials said.
However, the main diplomatic effort has centered on calls for a “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, a binding set of rules for a waterway believed to hold significant oil and gas deposits.
The US has pressed the idea, which is also strongly supported by ASEAN as a whole. However, Chinese Minister of National Defense General Chang Wanquan (常萬全), voiced Beijing’s displeasure with the concept.
“The Chinese side has always advocated these problems should be handled by the countries directly,” he told reporters.
He added that “ASEAN is not a concerned party” to the disputes.
Beijing has long said that such disputes should only be addressed bilaterally between rival claimants and not under any multilateral umbrella.
In related news, China has asked Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to call off a visit next week for the opening of a trade fair, Manila said yesterday, in an apparent snub, but Beijing insisted it had never invited him in the first place.
Relations between the two countries have been soured by a bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Manila has filed an arbitration case before the UN International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, questioning Beijing’s claim as China deploys ships on two disputed shoals in the area.
“The president has decided not to proceed to the China-ASEAN Expo taking into consideration China’s request for the president to visit China at a more conducive time,” Philippine foreign department spokesman Raul Hernandez said in a text message.
“On the part of the Philippines, we will continue to abide by our principled position that bilateral relations can advance despite differences,” he said.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying Aquino had not been invited.
“China never extended an invitation to the Philippine president,” it said, without elaborating.