WASHINGTON, July 11 (Reuters) - The United States said on Friday it wants Beijing and rival countries to clamp a voluntary freeze on actions aggravating territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Michael Fuchs, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Strategy and Multilateral Affairs, said no country was solely responsible for escalating tensions in the region. But he reiterated the U.S. view that "provocative and unilateral" behavior by China had raised questions about its willingness to abide by international law.
Washington wants the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China to have "a real and substantive discussion" to flesh out a call for self-restraint contained in a Declaration of Conduct they agreed to in 2002, with a view toward signing a formal maritime Code of Conduct, Fuchs said.
"We've called for claimant states to clarify and agree to voluntarily freeze certain actions and activities that escalate disputes and cause instability as described in the DOC," Fuchs told a Washington think tank, giving details of a proposal he said had been put to both China and ASEAN states, but which has received little public attention.
A U.S. official said the issue was raised again this week with China at the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a bilateral forum that seeks to manage an increasingly complex and at times testy relationship. The official declined to give details of China's response.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain oil and gas deposits and has rich fishery resources. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also lay claim to parts of the sea, where about $5 trillion of ship-borne trade passes every year.
Recent weeks have seen flareups in the disputes, including anti-Chinese violence in Vietnam after China's state oil company CNOOC deployed an oil rig in waters also claimed by Hanoi.
Fuchs said deciding what elements were included in a freeze would ultimately be up to the claimants, but these could include recommitting not to establish new outposts or seize territory another claimant had occupied before the 2002 declaration.
Claimants could also clarify what types of actions were provocative and what were merely efforts to maintain a long-existing presence dating back to before 2002, Fuchs added.
"For example, alterations that fundamentally change the nature, size or capabilities of the presence could fall under the freeze, whereas routine maintenance operations would be permissible," he said.
Fuchs said claimants could also agree to refrain from unilateral enforcement measures against long-standing economic activities by other claimants in disputed areas.
"All of these measures ... would more clearly define the type of activities already suggested by the DOC, to which the parties have already committed," Fuchs said.
"The agreement would not affect any party until all claimants had agreed to abide by its terms," he said. "Moreover, if adopted the freeze would not be prejudicial to the resolution of competing claims."
Fuchs said the freeze would create an environment for negotiations on a China-ASEAN Code of Conduct "that would dramatically lower the risk of a dangerous incident."
"We make this suggestion as an idea to spark serious discussions about ways to reduce tensions and address these disputes. The claimants themselves should get together to address the parameters of a freeze."
The Philippines, one of the ASEAN states with competing claims with China, called in June for all claimant states in the region to halt construction activities that may raise tensions. (Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Tom Brown)