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U.S. urges negotiation in South China Sea disputes

The United States, like the rest of the world, has a deep interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and in helping defuse tensions over territorial disputes there, a senior defense official said yesterday.

Speaking on background at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference on maritime security in the South China Sea, the official reiterated Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s support for peaceful resolution regarding territorial disputes in the strategically critical region.

The South China Sea is a vital shipping lane that possesses vast oil and gas deposits. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all lay claim to overlapping parts of it, causing regional friction and several recent confrontations.

“The United States, like every nation, has an interest in the freedom of navigation and open access to Asia’s maritime commons and with respect for international law in the South China Sea,” the official said at theforum.

He cited Gates’ comments earlier this month at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore, where the secretary emphasized U.S. support for “freedom of navigation and unimpeded economic development and commerce and respect for international law.”

Gates warned at the summit that lack of a strong multilateral mechanism for nations to settle their disputes peacefully could cause problems to escalate. “I fear that without rules of the road, without agreed approaches to deal with these problems, that there will be clashes,” he told attendees. “I think that serves nobody’s interests.”

The secretary urged the countries involved to establish a code of conduct based on an agreement between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China to promote peaceful resolution of their territorial disputes.
“Given recent events, we would hope that all parties will be able to make tangible progress” toward creating this code of conduct, the defense official said.

Until that can be achieved, the United States recognizes customary international law, as reflected in the U.N. Convention of the Laws of the Sea, as providing “clear guidance” regarding the maritime domain, he said.

The United States does not take positions on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, he said. It does, however, urge nations to pursue their territorial claims and accompanying rights to maritime space in accordance with international law and through diplomatic means.

Although encouraged by nations’ stated interest in peaceful resolution, “we remain concerned” that actions haven’t always been in line with that goal and could lead to further incidents, the official said.

This, he said, “could threaten the safety, security and stability of the region.”

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