NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar: The United States on Sunday pressed its case for a freeze on hostile acts in waters contested by China and its Southeast Asian neighbors, but said it did not want to “confront” Beijing over its strategy in the region.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing for an agreement to end all actions that risk further inflaming regional relations, following several tense encounters in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) this year.
Washington’s top diplomat is touring the region despite a slew of major international crises in other parts of the world as the US looks to reinvigorate alliances in the Asia-Pacific as part of President Barack Obama’s “pivot” east.
Sea disputes dominated security talks at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Sunday afternoon.
The meet brings together Southeast Asian foreign ministers and key partners, including the US, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the European Union.
A senior US administration official said concern among its Southeast Asian allies about “Chinese behavior was at an all time high.”
But the official insisted there would not be a “showdown” between the two world superpowers.
“We don’t want to confront China. But we have a series of interests and principles that drive our approach in the region where they diverge with China,” the official said.
Kerry on Saturday formally put forward Washington’s proposal to cool maritime tensions based on claimant states agreeing to step back from actions that could “complicate or escalate disputes.”
The US waded into the South China Sea row following a series of maritime incidents between China and rival claimants, including Beijing’s positioning of an oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam which sparked deadly riots in the Southeast Asian nation.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea, which lies on key shipping routes and is believed to be rich in mineral and oil deposits.
But its claims overlap with ASEAN states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan.
US officials hailed American influence in ASEAN talks that began Friday, saying it had helped the bloc issue a united statement on the sea issue, which has previously seen friction between some member states with maritime claims and supporters of China.
“We think we have been successful in galvanizing and serving as a catalyst,” said a State Department official.
ASEAN said it was “seriously concerned” over the maritime disputes, in a statement by foreign ministers Sunday, that had been delayed as members wrangled over the language of the South China Sea section.
“We urged all parties concerned to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which would complicate the situation and undermine peace, stability, and security,” it said.
While China says it is not the aggressor in the disputed waters, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday warned that “the Chinese side is bound to make clear and firm reactions” if provoked.
Wang held a bilateral meeting with his American counterpart on Saturday.
In a statement released by the Chinese embassy in Myanmar following the talks, Beijing welcomed “the constructive role” played by the US in regional affairs, adding that it “hopes that the US can respect China’s legitimate rights and interests in this region.”