NUSA DUA, Indonesia, July 24 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday that China and Southeast Asia must urgently finalise a code of conduct for the South China Sea, a potentially oil-rich region.
“We think that it was an important first step but only a first step,” Clinton told reporters after Beijing and members of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed last week to work toward a new mechanism for resolving disputes.
“We ... urge that ASEAN move quickly, I would even add urgently, to achieve a code of conduct that will avoid any problems in the vital sea lanes and territorial waters of the South China Sea.”
China is at odds with many of its southern neighbours over competing claims to vast swathes of the South China Sea, and Clinton said all sides needed to do more to head off what tensions in a region traversed by anything from one-third to one-half of global trade.
“All of us have a stake in ensuring that these disputes don’t get out of control,” Clinton said during an appearance with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
“In fact the numbers have been increasing: of intimidation actions, of rammings, of cutting of cables ... the kinds of things that will raise the costs of doing business for everyone.”
The preliminary deal between China and ASEAN was the highlight of this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, and Clinton said it represented real progress from last year’s meeting which was marred by sharp words between Beijing and some of the rival ASEAN nations with South China Sea claims.
China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN members — the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam — all claim slices of the South China Sea, while Washington has irritated Beijing by declaring it also has a national interest at stake in ensuring freedom of navigation and trade.
Clinton on Saturday urged countries to produce legal evidence for their territorial claims, a challenge to Beijing which says it has had undisputable sovereignty over large parts of the South China Sea since ancient times.
Natalegawa said Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, would press for more concrete progress on resolving the issue peacefully, calling Thursday’s preliminary deal “a good sign.”
“The key thought here is that we must make sure that this is not the end of the line,” he said.
Clinton and Natalegawa said the United States continued to improve relations with Indonesia, which Washington sees joining India as an important Asian player and potential counterweight to China’s expanding influence in the region.
U.S. President Barack Obama visited both countries last year and is due to make a return trip to Indonesia in November to formally launch U.S. participation in the East Asia Summit.
Washington and Jakarta want to boost cooperation on everything from military affairs to climate change. Tensions over human rights have receded after Washington last year dropped a ban on ties with Indonesia’s special forces imposed over rights abuses in the 1990s.
Rights groups have accused Indonesia of repressive policies against activists, but Clinton said she Jakarta was becoming an important global rights advocate.
Natalegawa said Indonesia, which has promoted wide-ranging political reforms since the toppling of authoritarian ex-president Suharto in 1998, no longer needed lectures on the importance of protecting human rights.
“It doesn’t take an external party to suggest to us that we need to do this or that. Efforts are being made to ensure that our own democratic and human rights expectations are fulfilled as we expect them to be,” he said. (Editing by Daniel Magnowski)