By Scott Stearns
U.S. and Chinese diplomats meet in Washington Wednesday for a security and economic dialogue expected to include rival territorial claims to the South China Sea.
China is modernizing its navy and increasing patrols in the disputed waters of the South China Sea – where Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan are all contesting Beijing’s claims.
Peacefully resolving that standoff is part of the agenda for this week’s meetings in Washington. It follows last week’s U.S.-China talks in Brunei at a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN where Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned against military action.
“Both China and other coastal states in the South China Sea are making efforts for a stable South China Sea. I believe any activity taken by individual claimant countries to go against the trend will not enjoy the support of the majority of countries and will not succeed,” said Wang Yi.
The U.S. often holds joint naval exercises with the Philllipines near the South China Sea, which is thought to hold rich deposits of oil and natural gas.
The Philippines blames China for “increasing militarization” and is moving to upgrade facilities at Subic Bay, a former U.S. base.
But other ASEAN nations are more cautious – a division that benefits China, says American University professor Pek Koon Heng.
“If you look at the spectrum of responses from the ASEAN countries, the claimant states to the Chinese claims, on the one hand is deference, they defer, they have to accommodate. And then the other end is defiance. So you see Vietnam on the deference end and the Philippines on the defiance end,” said Pek Koon Heng.
On the deference end, Vietnam is signing a series of agreements with China on defense and offshore oil exploration.
Avoiding conflict in an area through which so much global commerce passes is critical, U.S. business leaders say.
“We would all be the losers: the people, the economies, the creation of jobs to see conflict erupt in that region,” said Calman Cohen, who heads the Emergency Committee for American Trade. “It is not in any power’s interest to see that result,” said Calman Cohen who heads the Emergency Committee for American Trade.
While the United States does not take sides in the disputes, Secretary of State John Kerry said in Brunei that Washington has a strong interest in seeing them resolved peacefully.
“As a Pacific nation and a resident power, the United States has a national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded lawful commerce and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” he said.
China has agreed to September talks in Beijing on a so-called “code of conduct” with ASEAN members to avoid conflict in the disputed waters.