U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Monday for Southeast Asian states to present a united front to the Chinese in dealing with territorial disputes in the South China Sea. And she called for those countries and China to make “meaningful progress” toward ending conflicts by November.
Visiting Indonesia’s capital, Ms Clinton offered strong U.S. support for a regionally endorsed plan to ease rising tensions by implementing a code of conduct for all claimants to disputed islands. Jakarta is the headquarters of the Association of South East Asian Nations, and Ms Clinton also pressed the group to insist that China agree to a formal mechanism to reduce short-term risks of conflict and ultimately come to final settlements over sovereignty.
“The United States has a national interest, as every country does, in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea,” Ms Clinton told reporters at a news conference with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
“The United States does not take a position on competing territorial claims ... but we believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation and certainly without the use of force,” she said. “That is why we encourage ASEAN and China to make meaningful progress toward finalizing a comprehensive code of conduct in order to establish rules of the road and clear procedures for peacefully addressing disagreements.”
Indonesia played a leading role in putting the six-point plan together after ASEAN was unable to reach consensus on the matter in July. Ms Clinton said the U.S. is “encouraged” by the plan but wants it acted on particularly implementation and enforcement of the code of conduct, which has languished since a preliminary framework for it was first agreed in 2002.
Ms Clinton said the U.S. wants to see the disputes resolved between China and ASEAN. She said the Asian alliance has collective clout that its 10 members do not have individually, and said she sees it as important for ASEAN and China to have something to show for their efforts by a November summit of East Asian leaders that President Barack Obama plans to attend in Cambodia.
“It is time for diplomacy,” she said. “We have the East Asia Summit coming up. This should be the goal that diplomacy pursues to try to attain agreement ... on a robust code of conduct to begin and begin to try to literally calm the waters and enable people to work together toward better outcomes. I think we can make progress before the East Asia Summit and it is certainly in everyone’s interest that we do so.”
Mr Natalegawa agreed with Ms Clinton on the importance of the code of conduct and the need to set it up quickly.
“We must try to have the code of conduct,” he said. “Absent a code of conduct, absent the diplomatic process, we can be certain of more incidents and tension for our region. Absent an ASEAN unity, the question will become like a loose cannon in the way the issue is discussed.”