MANILA/WASHINGTON Aug 8 China will come under
the most concerted diplomatic pressure yet to rein in its
assertive moves in the disputed South China Sea when the United
States uses a regional security meeting this weekend to rally
support for a freeze on provocative acts.
The push by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the ASEAN
Regional Forum marks a step up in Washington's involvement in
the dispute, which has frayed regional ties as China acts more
forcefully on its sweeping sovereignty claims.
Kerry arrives in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw on Saturday,
joining top diplomats from China, Russia, Japan, India,
Australia, the European Union and Southeast Asia among others in
Asia's highest-profile gathering so far this year. Foreign
ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN) begin talks on Friday.
Beijing rejects U.S. involvement in the dispute and has
already dismissed proposals from Washington and Manila for a
freeze on actions such as land reclamation and construction on
disputed islands and reefs.
"The secretary is not looking for a showdown. This is not a
superpower battle," said a senior U.S. State Department
official, stressing that Kerry would call on all claimants to
show restraint, not just China.
Washington, however, has singled China out.
Daniel Russel, the State Department's senior diplomat for
the East Asia region, said in a speech on July 28 that public
evidence indicated China's upgrading of outposts on small land
features in the South China Sea was "far outpacing" similar work
other claimants were doing.
On Thursday, Chinese state media said China planned to build
lighthouses on five islands in the South China Sea. At least two
of the islands - Drummond Island and Pyramid Rock - are in the
Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The unusually strong U.S. stance will add pressure on
Beijing to address growing regional concerns and could encourage
some ASEAN nations to push for faster progress on a maritime
code aimed at reducing tensions. China accuses the United States
of emboldening claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam
with its military "pivot" back to Asia.
"The Americans have decided that based, not on what China is
saying, but what it is doing, they had to lift their game," said
Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The call for the freeze should be seen as a new level of
engagement and diplomacy on this issue by the Americans."
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is
believed to contain oil and gas deposits and has rich fishing
grounds. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan
also lay claim to parts of the sea, where about $5 trillion in
ship-borne trade passes every year.
Tensions spiked in May when China parked a giant oil rig in
waters claimed by Vietnam. Relations between China and U.S. ally
the Philippines have also cooled in recent years over the
disputed sea territories.
The rancour has split ASEAN, with several states including
some of the claimants reluctant to antagonise Asia's economic
giant. ASEAN's biggest economy, Indonesia, backs the proposals
for a freeze and will ask others to specify which actions they
would cease, its Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said.
"What I will be seeking at the ASEAN meeting in Myanmar is
for us to be able to spell out what we actually mean when we say
self-restraint," he told reporters on Tuesday.
A draft of the planned ASEAN foreign ministers' joint
statement seen by Reuters includes a call for a freeze on
"destabilizing actions" but that reference could be removed or
watered down. Smaller nations such as Cambodia, Laos and host
Myanmar have deep economic and political ties with Beijing, and
may be receptive to Chinese complaints of external interference.
ASEAN and China signed a trust-building agreement in 2002,
committing to exercise "self-restraint" in activities that would
escalate disputes, such as occupying islands and reefs or
building on them. Most claimants have flouted those guidelines.
The Philippines accused China in May of reclaiming land on
the disputed Johnson South Reef and said it appeared to be
building an airstrip. Taiwan is building a $100 million port
next to an airstrip on the lone island it occupies in the
As well as Johnson South Reef, a senior Philippine navy
official told Reuters that China was continuing land reclamation
work on Gaven, Cuarteron and Eldad Reefs in the disputed
Spratlys chain. He also said Manila had a four-year plan -
currently shelved by budget constraints - to build helipads on
two shoals, install radars and sensors in other areas and to
build a port and extend an airstrip on Pag-asa island.
The official declined to be identified because he was not
authorised to speak on the South China Sea issue. China said
this week it can build whatever it wants on its islands in the
(Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in Jakarta, David
Brunnstrom in Washington and Martin Petty in Hanoi; Writing by
Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Dean Yates)