BEIJING: China’s claim to almost the whole of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) is “problematic” and the Asian power’s actions have raised tensions, a US official said on Tuesday on the eve of high-stakes talks.
Beijing also disputes islands with Japan—a US security ally that Washington is treaty-bound to defend if attacked—and officials traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry said they had “heightened concerns” about “the readiness of claimants to utilize military, paramilitary, coast guard forces in furtherance of their claims.”
Kerry arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for the sixth Strategic and Economic Dialogue, billed as the main annual meeting between the world’s two largest economies.
The two days of tough discussions will seek to chart a path ahead in turbulent China-US ties roiled by differences over Asia-Pacific maritime tensions, Internet hacking and trade issues.
China’s claim to the strategic West Philippine Sea—also claimed in part by the Philippines and Vietnam, among others—is based on a line drawn on 20th century maps.
A US official travelling with Kerry said: “The ambiguity associated with the nine-dash line is problematic.”
China and its neighbors in the region have stepped up their patrols of disputed areas, and recent spats led to ramming incidents, the use of water cannon and arrests of fishermen.
The heightened tensions are “very relevant to the United States as a Pacific power, as a major trading nation, as an important consumer of the sea lanes and as a long-term guarantor of stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” the senior US administration official said.
The official spoke anonymously in order to candidly discuss the talks, and said the conversation will be held in “a very direct, candid and constructive way.”
The US stresses that it takes no sides in the territorial claims, but has accused Beijing of destabilizing acts and urged it to uphold freedom of navigation in the key waterways.
China has stressed it is committed to diplomatic, peaceful means to address the claims, the US official said. “We want China to honor that and live up to its word.”
Other issues high on the agenda include North Korea, following a “significant” visit last week by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Seoul.
“There is a steady convergence in the views between the US and China on both the importance and the urgency in moving North Korea to take irreversible steps to denuclearize,” the official said.
But while Beijing’s patience with the brinkmanship of its wayward, unpredictable ally appears to be wearing thin, it has not publicly shown any willingness to take any action toward the regime.
Kerry is to meet with Xi on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Philippine government is studying the implications of a new law that will bolster Chinese military enforcement over the disputed South China Sea where the Philippines and several other Asian countries have overlapping claims.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Charlie Jose also on Tuesday said the government will complete its assessment as soon as possible.
The new law, which takes effect on August 1, will increase military protection of Chinese offshore territories in the contested waters, in what is seen as China’s latest attempt to reinforce its hold on the South China Sea, which is said to be rich in oil and natural gas.
Jose was quick to point out that the Philippines has “sovereignty and rights and jurisdiction over the West Philippine Sea.”