As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed how the U.S. and China are cooperating on a wide range of issues, she also pressed Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to accept an Asean Code of Conduct to ease tensions in the South China Sea, during meetings at the Asean Summit in Cambodia on Thursday, said reports.
Tensions between Asean members Vietnam and the Philippines have risen as both they and China press territorial claims in the South China Sea, which hold rich reserves of oil and gas.
The U.S. is trying to walk a delicate diplomatic line, and this week it was criticized by China for meddling in the issue, which it said should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
At the meeting, Yang spoke of building an even closer U.S.-Chinese relationship. Neither side spoke about the South China Sea while reporters were allowed in the room, said The Associated Press.
A potentially dangerous war of words has grown in recent months ending in a tense standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships and disagreements between China and Vietnam over claims to a number of islands in the sea.
China claims almost the entire sea area and has created an entirely new city to bolster its claim to the area. The South China Sea accounts for about one-third of the world's cargo traffic and in addition to its energy resources, it is a plentiful fishing ground.
Earlier, Clinton said, “The United States has no territorial claims there and we do not take sides in disputes about territorial or maritime boundaries. But we do have an interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.”
She said all international disputes should be solved “collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without use of force" and follow international law.
Earlier this week, the 10-member Asean group announced it had drafted a set of rules governing maritime rights and navigation, and procedures for when governments disagree. China is not a member of the group and has opposed such a procedure. The rules have not been made public.
The issue is the first recent major territorial disagreement involving so many Asian countries, and the first major test for the U.S. after it announced that it was re-engaging in Asia after decades of focusing on the Middle East. Speaking out on the subject already has helped the U.S. deepen ties with Vietnam and other governments in the region, said summit observers.
Disputes over ocean territorial claims and sea lanes have taken place among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Burma, Bangladesh and Brunei, and analysts say the issue remains volatile and could spark unwanted confrontations.
A standoff between China and the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines took place in April when the Philippines accused Chinese fishermen of poaching in its exclusive economic zone. Both sides sent government ships to the area.
Recently, the China National Offshore Oil Corp. opened nine oil and gas lots for international bidders in areas overlapping with existing Vietnamese exploration blocks. Vietnam said the lots lie entirely within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
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