Sat, May 06, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Tillerson urges an end to South China Sea buildup

‘EMPHATIC’:The US secretary of state said militarization and land reclamation in the area ‘need to stop’ to give ASEAN talks with China a decent chance of succeeding


US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered an “emphatic” message to foreign ministers from Southeast Asian nations that militarization and construction in the South China Sea must stop while territorial disputes in the area are worked out, a senior US official said.

Tillerson delivered the message — aimed at China — during a lunch on Thursday with ASEAN ministers in Washington.

He urged “all parties involved to stop militarization, construction, reclamation of land in the South China Sea while talks are going on,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Patrick Murphy said on a call with reporters.

“The secretary was quite emphatic about the need to stop these activities to give talks a good chance of succeeding,” he added.

Tillerson’s remarks were more moderate toward China than US President Donald Trump’s comments during the campaign, when he called out Beijing over its reef reclamation, currency manipulation and trade policies.

Since then, Trump has made clear he is counting on cooperation with Beijing to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program and praised his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), a move that could undercut any tough message from the US Department of State.

In his confirmation hearing in January, Tillerson compared China’s actions in the South China Sea to those of Russia in Crimea, saying a failure to respond had let China “keep pushing the envelope.”

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,” Tillerson said, in remarks that critics said invited a military confrontation. He has not repeated that formulation since then.

The US is not a claimant in the South China Sea, but has urged talks to solve the disputes. Southeast Asian nations are in talks with China for a code of conduct covering the waters, though progress has been slow.

During the meeting with Tillerson, the ministers stressed the importance of the peaceful resolution of the disputes, according to an ASEAN statement.

“We reiterated the principles previously agreed by our leaders and we call for the early agreement on the framework and expeditious conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea,” the ministers said in the statement.

A summit in Manila last weekend of ASEAN leaders ended with a statement noting “the improving cooperation between ASEAN and China” over the waterway.

Murphy said the US would continue its navy’s “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea, though he declined to say when that might occur.

Such operations, which have typically produced protests from Beijing, have not been undertaken since Trump took office, according to a Pentagon official who asked not to be identified discussing military movements.

“Our objectives remain very firm in this regard, and the United States will continue to assert its rights in the South China Sea,” Murphy said.

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