HANOI (Reuters) - A dozen members of Asia’s top security forum raised concerns on Friday about maritime security issues including sensitive territorial claims in the South China Sea, putting an irked China on the defensive, diplomats said.
China has long-standing disagreements with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- all memebers of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- over boundary claims which have sparked deadly naval clashes.
Twelve of the 27 members of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), including the four ASEAN members involved in disputes, the United States, the European Union and Indonesia, raised maritime issues in a discussion on Friday, underscoring concern for security on the region’s seas and support for a multilateral approach.
Beijing has insisted on handling the disputes on a one-on-one basis rather than multilaterally. Parts of the South China Sea are potentially rich in oil and gas, fuelling the disputes.
One senior ASEAN diplomat said the issue of the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea had been raised explicitly, as well as concerns about China’s military buildup, marked by the rapid modernisation of its navy.
“The discussion was quiet tense at one point. China ended up on the defensive,” said the diplomat, who declined to be identified. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was “clearly exasperated”, he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States had “a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea”, and expressed support for a “collaborative diplomatic process”.
“We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant,” she said in prepared remarks for the forum.
She later said the conversation was “very productive”.
A second diplomat with knowledge of the discussion said Yang responded with “a very strong and emotional statement essentially suggesting that this was a pre-planned mobilisation on this issue ... He was distinctly not happy,” the diplomat said. Yang declined to discuss details of the meeting with the media. “I expressed the position, the consistent position, of the Chinese side,” he told Reuters.
“DIVIDE AND CONQUER”
A senior U.S. official said that during a sideline meeting between Clinton and Yang, the Chinese side insisted disputes should be handled bilaterally and resisted the idea of taking up in a multilateral forum.
Diplomats said Vietnam, ASEAN chair this year, had been lobbying neighbours to raise maritime security and territorial issues in response to what some have described as a “divide and conquer” strategy by China in handling South China Sea disputes.
Vietnam hosted an academic conference last year on resolving the South China Sea disputes which analysts said was part of its efforts to “internationalise” the issue, and it will hold a follow-up conference in November.
Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakway province, also has disputed claims in the South China Sea but is not a party to the ASEAN Regional Forum.
Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales, said the fact so many participants raised the issue, and the United States had come out strongly, represented a major development for the ARF, often derided as a talk shop.
“This is a diplomatic challenge to China,” he said by telephone. “China has been able to use that forum to back its own policies almost unimpeded, and now it’s probably looking back and realising what thin ice it was on.” (Editing by Jason Szep and Andrew Marshall)
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