MANILA, Philippines (AP) - The U.S., Australian and Japanese foreign ministers called Monday for a halt to land reclamation and military actions in the South China Sea and compliance with an arbitration ruling that invalidated China’s vast claims to the disputed waters.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Japan’s new top diplomat, Taro Kono, also called on their Southeast Asian counterparts to rapidly negotiate a legally binding maritime code with China aimed at preventing an escalation of conflicts in one of the world’s busiest waterways.
In a joint statement, the three expressed serious concerns over the long-seething sea disputes and “voiced their strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions.”
They urged rival claimant states in the South China Sea “to refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarization of disputed features, and undertaking unilateral actions that cause permanent physical change to the marine environment in areas pending delimitation.”
The contending states should clarify their claims peacefully in accordance with a 1982 maritime treaty and international law, according to the three, who met on the sidelines of annual meetings of Asia-Pacific foreign ministers in Manila, including those from China and Russia.
Their remarks, which are aimed at taming aggression in the disputed waters, are considerably stronger than a joint statement of concern issued by their counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-nation bloc whose economies depend heavily on China.
Their stance contrasts with that of China, which opposes what it considers meddling in Asian disputes by the United States and other Western governments. Beijing wants the disputes to be resolved through one-on-one negotiations.
China’s territorial disputes in the strategic and potentially oil- and gas-rich waterway with Taiwan and ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam intensified after Beijing built islands in the disputed waters in recent years and reportedly started to install a missile defense system on them, alarming rival claimant states as well as the U.S. and other Western governments.
China’s foreign minister said talks for a long-sought code of conduct in the South China Sea, first mooted in 2002, may finally start this year if “outside parties” don’t cause a major disruption.