US, China meet on rising sea tensions

Filed on June 26, 2011

HONOLULU, Hawaii - The United States and China were holding first-of-a-kind talks Saturday on rising tensions in the South China Sea, with Beijing angry over Washington’s support of Southeast Asian countries.

Senior officials of the Pacific powers were meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, days after the United States rallied behind the Philippines and Vietnam which have been alarmed at what they see as Beijing’s growing assertiveness at sea.

Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said ahead of the talks that he would make clear to China the “strong principles” of the United States in defense of freedom of navigation.

“We want recent tensions to subside and cooler heads to prevail,” Campbell told reporters in Washington on Friday.

Campbell reiterated that the United States takes no stance on China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors — a point of contention for some US lawmakers who have been pressing for a more proactive role.

“The United States has no intention to fan the flames in the South China Sea and we have a very strong interest in the maintenance of peace and stability,” Campbell said.

But China’s top official at the Hawaii talks, vice foreign minister Cui Tiankai, warned that US support of its partners in Southeast Asia “can only make things more complicated.”

“I believe some countries now are playing with fire. And I hope the US won’t be burned by this fire,” Cui said, as quoted by The Wall Street Journal.

Cui said that the United States should limit itself to urging “more restraint and responsible behavior from those countries that have been frequently taking provocative actions.”

While the United States and China often talk, Saturday’s session is the first to focus specifically on the Asia-Pacific region. The dialogue was set up during the top-level Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington in May.

Campbell said that the United States would also talk to China about its interactions with North Korea and Myanmar, two of the dynamic region’s most isolated countries which both count on Beijing as their main source of support.

But the talks are expected to focus on the South China Sea, strategic and potentially oil-rich waters where Beijing has sometimes overlapping disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Vietnam recently held live-fire military exercises after accusing Chinese ships of ramming one oil survey ship and cutting the exploration cables of another.

The Philippines ordered its navy into the South China Sea — part of which it calls the West Philippine Sea — after accusing China of firing on Filipino fishermen and installing posts and a buoy in contested waters.

The United States plans joint exercises with the Philippines and a naval exchange with Vietnam in coming weeks, although US officials have characterized the activities as routine.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday pledged to assist the Philippines in modernizing its navy, whose flagship is an aging vessel used by the United States in World War II.

“While we are a small country, we are prepared to do what is necessary to stand up to any aggressive action in our backyard,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Thursday with Clinton at his side.

The United States a week earlier held talks with Vietnam, in which the former war foes issued a joint call for a peaceful resolution to disputes in the South China Sea.

President Barack Obama’s administration has focused on building ties with Southeast Asia, accusing the previous team of George W. Bush of neglecting the fast-growing and often US-friendly region due to preoccupation with wars.

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