| BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN Oct 10 U.S. Secretary of
State John Kerry gave tacit backing to the Philippines' stance
in a tense maritime dispute with China on Thursday, saying that
all countries had a right to seek arbitration to resolve
competing territorial claims.
The Philippines, a U.S. ally, has angered China by launching
an arbitration case with the United Nations to challenge the
legal validity of Beijing's sweeping claims over the
resource-rich South China Sea.
The United States has refrained from taking sides in the
dispute, one of Asia's biggest security headaches, but has
expressed a national interest in freedom of navigation through
one of the world's busiest shipping channels.
"All claimants have a responsibility to clarify and align
their claims with international law. They can engage in
arbitration and other means of peaceful negotiation," Kerry told
leaders at the East Asia Summit in Brunei, including Chinese
Premier Li Keqiang.
"Freedom of navigation and overflight is a linchpin of
security in the Pacific," he added.
China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China
Sea, overlapping with claims from Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the
Philippines and Vietnam. The last four are members of the
10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The row is one of the region's biggest flashpoints amid
China's military build-up and the U.S. strategic "pivot" back to
Asia signalled by the Obama administration in 2011.
Diplomatic efforts to ease tensions are now centred on
Chinese talks with ASEAN to frame a code of conduct for disputes
in the South China Sea, but Beijing has restricted talks to
low-level consultations rather than formal negotiations.
The annual East Asia Summit ended on Thursday without
significant progress on the dispute, with a joint ASEAN-China
statement saying only that the two sides had agreed to "maintain
the momentum of the regular official consultations".
Frustrated by the slow pace of regional diplomatic efforts
to resolve the dispute, the Philippines has hired a crack
international legal team to fight its unprecedented arbitration
case under the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea
- ignoring growing pressure from Beijing to scrap the action.
Any result will be unenforceable, legal experts say, but
will carry considerable moral and political weight.
Beijing has accused the Philippines of pursuing the case to
legalise its occupation of islands in the disputed sea and said
it would never agree to cooperate.
Some diplomats have expressed concern that the ASEAN-China
consultations are a bid by China to delay a final agreement on a
code while it expands its naval reach and consolidates its
ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh, in an interview with
Reuters, insisted that the consultations that had their first
round in China in September were a sign of progress.
"It's especially important progress if we look at what
happened a year before," he said, referring to an unprecedented
breakdown of an ASEAN summit in Cambodia over a failure to agree
wording on the South China Sea.
The next round of talks will take place at an unspecified
time next year, still at the relatively low "senior official"
On Wednesday, the United States and Japan - which has its
own maritime dispute with Beijing - both pressured China to
agree to abide by rules for the South China Sea, where Beijing
has backed its claims with an increasingly assertive naval
A Japanese official cited Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as
telling Philippine President Benigno Aquino that Japan was
"seriously concerned over efforts to alter the status quo by
force, by intimidation or coercion".